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The Population War
Documentary-maker Nanfu Wang tells Sarah Catherall what drove her to make a powerful indictment on China’s one child policy
Growing up in a small Chinese village in the 1980s, Nanfu Wang knew that her female baby cousin had died — but didn’t know the circumstances. Wang was born not long after the Communist Party’s one child policy was introduced in 1979 and enshrined in the constitution in 1982. Everything in her village in the Jianxi province promoted the regime — school textbooks, calendars, posters, songs, television shows and theatrical works all espoused the doctrine that said single child households would help an impoverished China become rich and successful. Throughout her childhood and youth, Wang felt ashamed that she had a younger brother who was born when she was 5 years old, because her parents were desperate to have a son. “When I went to school in the city, I felt embarrassed, as though my family had done something wrong by having a second child.”
Now an award-winning, New York-based filmmaker, Wang thought nothing more about the policy, which ran for 35 years, until she gave birth to her own son almost two years ago. “Becoming a new mother felt like giving birth to memories,” she says.
Early last year, Wang returned to her village with her young son to introduce him to her family — a trip that sparked a secret, and at times dangerous, investigation into the one child policy. The result is a chilling documentary, One Child Nation, which won the Grand Jury prize (documentary) at the Sundance Film Festival in February this year.
The film, which premieres in New Zealand at the NZIFF, details how Wang and her co-director, Jialing Zhang, uncovered the shocking truth of mass abortions and sterilisations that occurred because of the policy. During the course of a year, Wang and her crew travelled to China four times to investigate the Government’s actions, with the film sharing Wang’s own perspective on her own life growing up within it.
Wang, 34, and Zhang, 35, were born in China in the 1980s, when the country’s population crisis made headlines around the world, with close to one billion-plus Chinese competing for scarce resources. In One Child Nation, footage from the late 1970s shows a television reporter spouting the Government line: that families who had three children would bring the country to starvation. Chinese officials used fines and bribes to enforce the rule, asserting that by limiting families to just one child, the country’s standard of living would double.
If couples wanted two children, they had to pay money to the Government. Officials demolished homes and fined couples who disobeyed the policy. In some parts of China, couples got a permit to avoid the fee. The one child policy was not uniformly enforced around China, though, as there were exceptions for ethnic minorities and some rural families.
As Wang and Zhang probed further into the dark history of the policy, they learned that millions of babies — female, second child or twin babies — were discarded. Human traffickers cashed in on these unwanted babies by selling them on the lucrative international adoption market, mostly to couples in the United States, Canada and Germany. The Communist Party boasted that the policy, which ended in 2015, prevented some 338 million additional citizens being born.
While her family in China still back the policy, believing the Government did the right thing to save the Chinese people from starvation, Wang is critical of the brainwashing and human rights abuses that took place over 35 years. It’s what motivated her to make the controversial film — she hopes it will screen in China, even if only illegally or underground. “A lack of information and censorship in China means people don’t have access to the truth. I hope it will wake people up,” she says.
“We are Chinese, we grew up in China,” says Wang about her and her co-director Zhang. “We realised how little we knew. What we discovered shocked us. If Chinese people are unaware too, there may be another policy that repeats the same kinds of propaganda, which includes violence and similar views and tactics. We want people to be able to recognise that.”
In the film she comments, “China started a war against its population but it became a real war against its people.”
Wang recalls growing up at a time when one-child families were the norm. “I knew that women in my village were allowed one child and if they had a second they were sterilised. I heard my mum say that women had to be sterilised or the baby aborted. I didn’t know the scale of it though.”
What she and Zhang discovered was disturbing: the Communist Party punished or rewarded village officials and family planning officials depending on how many babies were born in their territory. One former village midwife became an abortionist; she also sterilised women, often using force. In the film, Huaru Yuan reveals she performed about 20 sterilisations a day; in total she did some 50,000 to 60,000 sterilisations and abortions during the course of 20 years. At times, she induced the babies, killing them with her hands. That was her job, all done under government order. “Women were tied up and dragged to us like pigs,” she says.
Now working in fertility services, trying to help Chinese couples conceive, Yuan says in the film: “I do this out of guilt because I aborted and killed babies.”
Across China, abandoned babies were sent to “matchmakers” who found homes for them or sent them overseas. One human trafficker told Wang he sent 10,000 babies to orphanages in the early 1990s — with babies then sold offshore. He spent six years in prison for his crime, part of a whole family who was jailed when the Government cracked down on the traffickers as it introduced a new adoption law in 1991.
The former trafficker and his sister tell Wang that they felt sorry for the abandoned babies. “I brought babies to State-run orphanages. They paid me. Shouldn’t they be punished first?” he says in the film.
Wang also interviewed the artist, Peng Wang, who spent his career photographing and painting portraits of aborted babies who had been dumped in yellow rubbish bags marked “medical waste”. One of the few who is critical of the policy in the film, he blames the long-term indoctrination and brainwashing for allowing the Government to get away with its actions.
Did Wang ever discover how many fetuses were aborted or babies sent away? She shakes her head. She doesn’t know the total number, but she does know that some fetuses were aborted as late as eight or nine months into a pregnancy.
Wang lost two female cousins because of the policy. Her maternal grandmother threatened to
When I went to school in the city, I felt embarrassed, as though my family had done something wrong by having a second child.
— Nanfu Wang
take her life if Wang’s uncle kept his first-born, a baby girl. They hid the newborn baby from Chinese officials and eventually Wang’s uncle left the baby at a market in a basket. In the film he recounts that when he went back the next day, she was dead. “I knew the baby had died but I wasn’t sure how it happened,” says Wang.
During her trips back to China, Wang also found out that her aunt gave her newborn baby girl to human traffickers, hoping she might be adopted and might survive. The second female victim in Wang’s family, her aunt says in the film: “I just wanted her to live.”
“I understand that she had no choice. It was the only choice, ” says Wang, “They acted within a system.”
If Chinese couples were only allowed one child, they wanted a son. Males would continue the family name and remain in the family village as adults. Their wives had to move to be with them. Any assets were inherited by males. “Without sons, the family name would become extinct,” one village elder says in One Child Nation.
Wang’s parents had hoped their first-born would be a boy. When Wang was in-utero, they named her Nanfu, which means boy and pillar. Five years later, her parents were allowed to try for a second child because their first had been female, although they had to pay a fee to the Government. When her brother, Zhihao, was born, her family let off firecrackers to celebrate. Zhihao says in the film: “If I had been born a girl, I would have been put in a basket and sent away.”
There were no celebrations for Wang. Her grandfather only had photographs taken with his grandsons — any granddaughters are missing, as though they never existed.
When Wang was 12, her father died of a sudden heart attack. She was forced to drop out of school so as to allow her brother an education, her schooling considered secondary. Her mother couldn’t afford to send her to high school. Says Wang: “I was devastated that I couldn’t finish school. But I had no choice.”
Aged 16, she took up a job as an elementary school teacher, taught herself English and went to night school. In 2007, her dream of going to college was realised when she won a scholarship to attend Shanghai University to study English literature.
In Shanghai, Wang also discovered movies. “My family’s village had no movie theatre so the sudden availability of movies was thrilling to me. I bought a laptop and watched movies late into the night.”
Four years later, she won a scholarship to study communications at Ohio University, where she picked up a video camera for the first time. Falling in love with documentaries as a mode of storytelling, Wang was in her mid-20s when she attended New York University to study an MA in documentary-making.
Her debut feature documentary, Hooligan Sparrow, was equally controversial, telling the story of Chinese human rights activists fighting to make government officials accountable for sexually assaulting young girls. She made the documentary having seen young women in her village working as sex workers because they had no education.
Hooligan Sparrow made Wang the subject of government surveillance; when she came to make
One Child Nation, she and Zhang knew they had to take extra precautions. While she travelled into China on her Chinese passport, she knew she would be under scrutiny. The crew never stayed in a public hotel or travelled by public transport. They left no trace of any interviews — Zhang organised them and Wang then did the interviews. Once, they were interrogated by the secret police. Zhang always followed Wang on GPS, alerting the crew if she didn’t hear from her for a couple of hours. They edited the film back in the US.
Wang returned to her old village, interviewing her family and others living there. They agreed to be named and identified in the film. Was she worried about their safety, given they had been interrogated after the release of Hooligan Sparrow?
She shakes her head. “I talked with my mum about the potential danger and whether the publicity might harm her family and the midwife and village officials. They were all pretty open when we approached them. I look back and realise that [the reason why was] most of them believed the policy was positive and contributed to the China’s progress. This view is presented in the film. Not one of them criticised the Government. They absolutely praised the policy.”
Her mother and brother travelled to Sundance for the film’s premiere. Asked afterwards by a journalist what she thought, Wang’s mother argued that it stopped people starving to death.
“If it weren’t for the one child policy, there would be cannabilism in China,” she told her daughter in the film.
“It’s the way her world view has been formed over five decades,” says Wang. “She believed in the propaganda.”
Zhang grew up on the southern coast, in the Guangdong province, an area where the one child policy wasn’t so harshly enforced. Despite this, her aunt had to give birth to a second child in secret. Now living in Massachusetts, Zhang is circumspect about her own story, concerned about protecting her family living in China.
“Like Nanfu, I grew up under [the one child] regime and my family had to pay a fine for having more than one child,” she says.
At boarding school and later at a college in Beijing, she felt guilty that her parents had more than one child. “People who had more than one child were told they had not followed the call from the Government,” she says, adding “I didn’t know about the big picture or the scale of it until we started making this documentary.”
Since the film’s premiere, Zhang has come across other heart-breaking stories. “We met a girl in her early 20s who was the second daughter of a family in Beijing. She doesn’t exist legally, she couldn’t go to school or college. If she does anything she has to use her sister’s ID and pretend she is the older sister.
“We have met a lot of amazing young Chinese at film festivals in the United States who come forward to us and they are so emotional about this story. A lot of young Chinese don’t have a brother or a sister, or uncles or aunts or cousins, and so it is a family arrangement that is very unique.”
The irony now, Wang says, is that the Chinese Government wants couples to have two children, a policy that was introduced in 2015. China has an ageing population, which its workforce can’t support.
Couples are now being offered incentives to have two children, Wang says.
“After three decades of being told it’s best to have one child, Chinese people still believe that that size family is best. A lot don’t want to have two children. They have internalised the message.”
China started a war against its population but it became a real war against its people.
— Nanfu Wang