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One Child Nation Documentary Explores China’s One-Child Policy
While Nanfu Wang, director of One Child Nation, interviews her uncle about the death of his infant daughter, his eyes tear up. Initially, Wang’s uncle is stony and cool as he explains the events that led to him and his sister leaving his baby in the village meat market in the dead of night, a little money wrapped into her shirt. He remembers the little girl covered in bugs, alone for two days in the summer heat until she died. Because of China’s one-child policy, he tells his niece, it was that or watch his mother kill the baby and then herself. He searches for the right words and fiddles with a cigarette as he tells Wang he thought he could save his daughter’s life by giving her away. But, no one wanted her.
Wang sits out of frame, explaining that she, as a new mother, can’t stand to hear her son cry for more than a few minutes. How did her uncle handle abandoning his daughter, and does he still think about her? Of course, he says, his face losing its guard. It cracks open, tears and words tumbling out of him. She was his child, he said, of course he thought about her every day.
From 1980 to 2016, China enforced a birth-restriction program, mostly limiting families to one child, in an effort to curb a rapidly expanding population. Wang herself was an exception to the rule. She grew up in a rural town, where overpopulation wasn’t as pressing an issue, and her parents were allowed two children if their first was a daughter. In One Child Nation, now streaming on Amazon, Wang explores China’s one-child policy enforcement tactics, including forced abortions and sterilizations, parental neglect and abandonment, and government-organized abduction and adoption.
Wang’s uncle tells her the story of leaving his daughter in a market in One Child Nation.
Through interviews with journalists, midwives, government officials, and families affected by the policy, One Child Nation speaks to both the policy’s methods and reverberating traumas. Wang takes viewers along with her as she tries to figure out how these actions were possible for so long in the country she loved, committed by the people she loves, showing a slippery slope of indoctrination.
The documentary follows one of these threads to Shaoyang City, Hunan Province, where 16-year-old Shuangjie Zeng shows Wang messages to and from her estranged twin sister. As a toddler, Zeng’s twin was taken by local government officials and adopted by an American family who was told they were saving an abandoned little girl. Fangfang Zeng grew up as Esther Frederick in the U.S. while her birth family searched for her for over a decade. When the Chinese government found they could make money off of international adoptions, abductions like Fangfang’s became commonplace.
The recorded history of state-sanctioned kidnapping like those under China’s one-child policy can be drawn back at least as far as 1858, when guards sent by the Vatican took Jewish six-year-old Edgardo Mortara from his home in Bologna on the grounds that he was a baptized Catholic (done secretly, by a maid). During World War II, Nazi soldiers raided occupied territories and abducted blond Polish children to be adopted by German families. These children were assimilated into Nazi life, surrounded by propaganda and their new families praising the Aryan race and the Third Reich.
While Americans might think that under a democracy we are beyond threat, there are active parallels. These adoptions based on false faith in the government call to mind the ones going on right now at the United States’ southern border. There, children of Latinx immigrants detained by US Border Patrol agents are often removed from the custody of the family that accompanied them. Having children in cages is the product of a ramped up and racist immigration crackdown, one arm of which is family separation.
Calculated rhetoric is key in the normalization of these coercive family separation tactics.
In 2018, AP reported the story of Alexa Ramos, a toddler taken from her mother, Araceli Ramos Bonilla, after they immigrated to the U.S. from El Salvador. When Ramos was deported, Alexa moved to a foster family’s home in Michigan. Before her deportation, Ramos said, an agent physically forced her hand to sign a waiver, allowing Alexa to stay behind. In California, a man was forced to sign English forms he could not read, later finding out he had signed away his son and was being deported without him.
When children are left in the U.S. after their families are deported, adoption agencies such as Bethany Christian Services often foster these children with American families. Though the agency say none of these children have been actually adopted, that doesn’t stop families like the Barrs, who fostered Alexa Ramos, from trying. When the Barrs began court action to gain legal guardianship of Alexa, her mother was reportedly not notified.
International adoption supply has shrunk, partly because of China’s need to bolster an insufficient middle class, left wanting after the one-child policy. Coercive tactics used by Bethany Christian Services, which handled Alexa Ramos’ case, in separating children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border has left people “worried that the agency was finding in the separated children a new adoption supply.”
Calculated rhetoric is key in the normalization of these coercive family separation tactics. The end of the one-child policy happened to coincide with Donald Trump’s racist and inflammatory characterization of Latinx immigrants during his 2016 campaign, which paved the way for his followers’ support of family separation. Similarly, China rolled out an extensive operation of one-child policy propaganda during the decades it was enforced. In One Child Nation, Wang shows the evidence in children’s plays, murals, and songs that existed as a constant backdrop to life in China.
Wang with her own son in a scene from One Child Nation.
That was the key that made Wang understand how the people she knew her whole life supported the one-child policy when it used violent and unethical enforcement tactics. “When we started the film, I thought it was going to be a simple story,” Wang said in an interview. “There are perpetrators, there are victims. And then, as soon as I met with the…people that carried out the policy, I soon realized that these were not bad people, they were not evil…They were actually great people. They wanted to do a good job, they wanted to be contributing to the government.” One Child Nation should be a warning to Americans as well, showing how people can be indoctrinated into accepting state-sanctioned kidnapping as a valid form of adoption. The U.S. Southern Border Crisis isn’t a simple story, either, and calling ourselves the Land of the Free doesn’t mean we can afford to trust blindly.
As seen in One Child Nation, this type of child abduction isn’t a relic of a past, and isn’t a piece of history best forgotten. The policy only ended in 2016, replaced with a two-child policy. And, as of July 2019, at least 400 Uyghur children were taken from their parents in Xinjiang, China and put in warehouses labeled as boarding schools. The forced internment and separation of the Uyghur people is ongoing in Western China, and echoes past instances of ethnic cleansing. Chinese propaganda calls the use of Uyghur internment camps a re-education program and counter-terrorism effort.
The past is already repeating itself.
Isabel is an Editorial Intern at Esquire, where she writes about culture.