December 29, 2019 – When Chinese-born American filmmaker Nanfu Wang had her first child, she began to think about the law limiting families to one child that was in effect in China when she was born there in 1985, and how that affected her brother, whose birth, five years after hers, violated that law. Those thoughts eventually led to this far-ranging documentary film which explores the consequences of one child law, as well as Chinese cultural attitudes towards children.
Wang (who narrates this film) said she thought she knew everything about China's one child policy (in effect from 1979 to 2015) that there was to know, but it turns out there was a lot more to it than she knew, and the consequences of the law are still being felt around the world.
The documentary film (co-directed by Jialing Zhang who was also born in China during the one-child era) explores the consequences of the one child policy and the unintended consequences on those abused by the system, as well as those who implemented the one child rules. The film notes that the one child policy changed over time. Government enforcement also varied over the years.
One remarkable interview is with a woman who performed a large number of abortions and sterilizations of women as part of the program. She felt so guilty about what she had done that she has since devoted her life to helping couples with fertility problems ever since, apparently with a great deal of success.
The film includes horror stories of forced, late-term abortions, forced sterilizations, abduction of children, abduction of women are all part of the one-child policy. The inherent misogyny ingrained in the Chinese culture, where male babies are greatly preferred over females, led to the increased practice of sex-selective abortions, female infanticide, abandonment of infants, resulting in death from exposure. The primary reason for this practice, according to the film, is that males carry on the family name, while females do not.
When a family can have as many children as it wants, the male preference and female infant abandonment is less of an issue, but the one child rule brought out the worst aspects of male preference, particularly in the rural areas of China. This, in turn, has led to an estimated 30 million more males than females, which may cause social problems in the future. This film includes stories of abandoned female infants among Wang's relatives.
While many female babies were killed, some were given to orphanages. After laws changed in the 1990s, making international adoptions more frequent, and more lucrative, some baby selling operations began to flourish. The film shows how Wang's own family was involved in such an adoption. A man who was imprisoned for an illegal adoption scheme is also interviewed.
According to the film, Chinese authorities were also involved in lucrative adoption schemes. They not only took babies from families violating the one child rule, but they collected fines from those families, and then collected additional money (like a finder's fee) when they turned the babies over to orphanages. Fees of $10,000 and up were charged to those who adopted these same infants from the orphanages.
The film also investigates attempts to track down the relatives of these adopted children. Since the adoption records are often fabricated, DNA testing is needed to find the families of adopted children. According to the film, very few adopted children have learned who their blood relatives are.
The amount of research that went into this film is impressive. Even more impressive is how Wang and Zhang have made this a personal film, a tale told by people were were personally involved and personally affected by the one child policy. This is a story of immense size, told on a personal scale. Also impressive is the access the filmmakers got to people in China, not the easiest place to get access to stories that are critical of the government. This film rates a B.
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