Emmy-nominated filmmaker Nanfu Wang is unusual for someone of her generation in China—she’s got a sibling. She was born in 1985 in the midst of China’s one child policy, which limited women to having a single baby. The only exception was for people in rural areas, like Wang’s parents, who were permitted to have a second child so long as they waited five years between having them.
In her film One Child Nation, a contender in the prestigious Emmy category of Exceptional Merit in Documentary Filmmaking, Wang describes how she felt attending middle school in the nearest city, surrounded by kids with no siblings.
“Whenever someone found out that I had a brother, I felt embarrassed,” she recalls, “as if our family had done something wrong.”
Social pressure kept some from disobeying the policy, but One Child Nation exposes in chilling detail how much further the Chinese government went to enforce its decree, in effect from 1979 to 2015.
“The job [of family planning officials] was to monitor women down to when their periods came and whether a woman was pregnant or not. So if a pregnant woman gave birth to their first child, within a month they would be forced to have a sterilization,” Wang explains. “And if women resisted—let’s say if they tried to hide in a different city, in a different village—once they were discovered they would be taken into a clinic to have a forced abortion.”
For her film, Wang tracked down Huaru Yuan, the midwife who delivered her. The midwife’s duties involved more than assisting with births; as part of her responsibility to enforce the one child policy, Yuan said she performed 50 to 60,000 sterilizations and abortions, even committing infanticide.
“Many I induced alive and killed. My hands trembled doing it,” Yuan says in One Child Nation. “But I had no choice. It was the government’s policy. We didn’t make decisions. We only executed orders.”
A strong cultural bias favoring male offspring over female resulted in the country being littered with unwanted infant girls, the film reveals. That was true in Wang’s own family; she interviewed her uncle, who abandoned his baby daughter in hopes he could try again for a boy. Wang’s mother helped her brother get rid of the infant.
“We put $20 in her clothes and left her on the meat counter in the market,” Wang’s mom recounts. “For two days and nights, she was there. No one wanted her. Her face was full of mosquito bites. She eventually died.”
One Child Nation also exposes what the director terms an “international adoption corruption scandal.” In the early 1990s, the film says, Chinese authorities realized they could make a tidy sum offering babies up for adoption.
“Instead of forcing a woman to abort they allowed the woman to carry the baby to full term and give birth and then they would take the baby away and put them into an orphanage by saying the family had violated the one child policy,” Wang alleges. “So the child was confiscated and eligible for international adoption.”
Families in the U.S. and other countries seeking to adopt were falsely told the infants had been abandoned; they paid anywhere from $10,000 to $25,000 to get a baby.
One Child Nation, from Amazon Studios, is the third feature documentary directed by Wang. Her first film, Hooligan Sparrow, also was critical of her native China, focusing on a human rights activist who exposed the case of six elementary schoolgirls allegedly sexually abused by their principal. Wang says she was inspired to make her latest film after giving birth to her first child, a boy she is raising with her husband in New Jersey, where she now lives.
She co-directed One Child Nation with Jialing Zhang, an arrangement that helped Wang fly under the radar of Chinese authorities. Eventually she was able to travel to China herself to shoot the film.
“There were some incidents that we encountered—questioning [by officials], and it was a little scary,” Wang comments. “But because of the lessons I learned while making Hooligan Sparrow, this time we took a lot of precautions, for example, not taking any public transportation, not staying in a hotel, and luckily we were able to finish the production without getting into big trouble.”
The film explains the Chinese government’s motive for implementing the one child policy was to curb population growth and thereby lift the standard of living. The current policy allows women to have two children, an acknowledgment that China wasn’t producing enough young people to work and take care of an aging population. Despite the shocking record of what took place during the one child era, many people still support the steps the government took, including Wang’s mother. But for the director, the issue comes down to who makes decisions for women.
“I think our film shows what would happen if a government takes away the choice from women or from any individual,” Wang states. “But a government trying to control women’s reproductive rights is not only happening in China. It’s happening in many countries, including in the U.S. There’s always a different form—by limiting the access to reproductive rights, limiting the access to abortion, they are trying to control women and to take away their choices.”
One Child Nation made the Oscar shortlist and was nominated for the Producers Guild and Directors Guild awards. The Emmys’ Exceptional Merit in Documentary Filmmaking category is a juried award, limited to films judged as demonstrating outstanding artistry and/or significant social impact.
“We were all thrilled to hear that One Child Nation was nominated,” Wang tells Deadline. “It’s been a strange year with constant upsetting news everyday from all around the world, so the nomination brightened our day!”
The film comes at a time of growing conflict between the U.S. and China over trade, Hong Kong, and the coronavirus. One Child Nation may have a role to play in enhancing U.S. understanding of the land where Wang spent her formative years.
“I think the film can help people learn more about China, but the willingness to learn needs to be there in the first place,” the director observes. “During the pandemic, misinformation and disinformation surged in both China and the U.S. on topics ranging from the origin of the virus to the true death toll. I was astonished to see that both governments’ officials engaged and encouraged the spread of misinformation, and it went beyond social media to major media channels and government leaders’ speeches. In a critical situation like a public health crisis, truth is more consequential than ever. I hope that my film, in its capacity as a truthful account of a moment in China’s history, can provide people with context for China’s current political and social reality.”
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