One Child Nation Directors Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang on Children, Choice, and the Chinese “Propaganda Machine”

“1979: CHINA LAUNCHES ITS one-child policy.” So opens, in white, all-cap sans-serif, what could vie for this year’s most harrowing, and important, documentary: One Child Nation. Nabbing a top prize at Sundance and released in theaters August 9, the film chronicles the 35 years that the policy was enforced as a means to squelch the “population war” supposedly ravaging the People’s Republic. But on another level, it is the story of a generation, filtered through the memories and experiences of director Nanfu Wang, who, with co-director Jialing Zhang, interrogates what it meant to be born in China at the height of the policy’s power. 

Unflinching in their censure of China’s history of corruption, scandal, and violation of human (specifically women’s) rights, directors Wang and Zhang depict the individual players through an inherently compassionate lens—interviewing Wang’s own mother and grandparents; village leaders; retired midwives who administered forced abortions and sterilizations; propaganda officials; and the “matchmakers,” many originally tasked with collecting garbage, who turned the abandonment of female infants into a human-trafficking opportunity—one that demanded gross ignorance from Western families seeking to adopt from abroad. Each subject emphatically insists that they had no choice in the matter, that upholding Party policy was the only option. Artist Peng Wang stands out as one of the few voices in the film to openly critique the policy when it was still in effect, photographing the plastic-wrapped dead babies left at urban and rural trash sites. “How can a nation do this?” he asks. 

No matter one’s stance on population control or reproductive freedom, the tactics revealed in One Child Nation are a harrowing reminder of the collective trauma experienced when a people cede moral decision-making to strictly state control—and what happens when women’s bodies, and the genders of the bodies they birth, continue to be sanctioned. I spoke with Wang and Zhang in New York the week of the film’s release.

Nanfu, in the beginning of the film, you say, “I never thought much about what [the policy] meant for me—or anyone—till the day I learned I was going to be a mom.” Was it emotionally difficult to go back to China with a baby, given the topic of your film? 

Nanfu: When I was pregnant and we would go shoot, sometimes the subject would notice I was pregnant, and suddenly the conversation would shift to pregnancy. Because the film is already so much about children, pregnancy, abortion, and sterilization, that was difficult in a way. 

Did you feel that subjects were less willing to share certain information given that you were pregnant?

Nanfu: Actually, I think it made our conversations more human. Suddenly, we became closer since there was a shared sense of understanding. It makes a difference when the conversation is between a woman who is pregnant and another woman who has been pregnant. I never felt so close to the topic until that moment. The amount of empathy I could feel for it was different.

How did you two go about deciding whom to speak to? The film does a fantastic job showing a great variety of perspectives—young/old, male/female, urban/rural, U.S./China. How did you plan it?

Jialing: We actually didn’t plan it at the beginning. We did a lot of research and met a lot of different people—not just those in the film. The decision came about in the editing process to focus on Nanfu’s personal story and journey. A lot of the people we cover are those she knew in her childhood, and of course her uncle, who gave away his child to a human trafficker. All that naturally led to the question of where that child might be, so we could dig deeper into the human trafficking story and international adoption market—all in the post-production process.

Nanfu: We were trying to get a representative of everyone who participated in the policy in different ways, to provide a 360 view of the policy from the perspective of both the victims and the enforcers. We also wanted to look at the consequences both within and outside of China. We knew that the consequences were far-reaching and wide. That gave us a framework. We wanted to find victims, and we did. Actually, there were several victims we did not include in the film, because when we filmed the enforcers, their testimony was more shocking. One victim told us she was forced to abort, and then we interviewed a woman who herself forced abortions fifty thousand times. 

In terms of victims vs. enforcers, many of the enforcers presented themselves to the camera as victims as well. One of the mantras of the film is “I had no choice.” Your own brother in the film says, “I had no control over how I was treated differently than you.” In a way, your film is about the trauma of forcing the removal of a life—the separation of mother, family, and child—but also the trauma of stripping people of choice. Not just to mothers, but everyone.  

Nanfu: We realized that propaganda is a huge element of indoctrinating people to do the things that otherwise they would not have done. We wanted to find someone who was doing the propaganda, to show its origin, so we found a propaganda official. The artist we interviewed—Peng Wang—was unique. There were very few people in China who openly spoke out against the One Child Only Policy, and he was one of them, and the only one who kept visual, direct evidence of the policy. So from early on, we knew there was no doubt that we’d find him and film him.

With the midwife who’s conducted 50-60,000 abortions and sterilizations, she mentions that many were induced, and she had to kill them after they were born. I found that the most shocking moment of the film. I really didn’t know that that was a practice. Do you think that’s something most Chinese people know? 

Nanfu: I knew before that babies would be killed alive.

Jialing: I read some reports about it, but growing up, I didn’t know. And I didn’t know the level of brutality, or how humans could become numb in doing it, which was shocking to me. In the midwife’s story, she’s told she’s doing this for the greatness of the country, and she believed in it. She was a victim too. At one point in the interview, Nanfu asks, “Have you ever thought of quitting?” And she said, “I’ll quit after I retire.” Her primary role is still as a dedicated, loyal Communist member. She has to fulfill her duty. She believed in Buddhism, and what she believed in was in contradiction to the Communist party’s policy. It made me wonder, Why would she do that? But we realized that, due to the propaganda machine, people are brainwashed to such an extent that people thought they were doing the right thing in that moment.

Your film displayed an amazing contrast between the Buddhist midwife who was trying, in her later years, to atone for all the abortions and sterilizations, and then another midwife who says she has no regrets at all. You showed two different women of the same generation to show that not everyone sees this the same way now—including your own mom.

Nanfu: As far as the official who said she would totally do it again, we also could see a struggle of morality in her. But she was so decorated, celebrated, and indoctrinated by the party for so long that she really believed in the narrative. She had such a sense of pride for what she had done. But in the moment that she was remembering how brutal it was, I could see that she was struggling.

In an implicit way, the film suggests a generational rift between attitudes toward the one-child policy—between your generation and your parents’ generation. Do you think that rift is real, or do most people your age in China not know what happened?

Nanfu: Definitely the latter. Most people in China did not question or examine the one-child policy as we did. And we would not have done it if we were not making the movie, or if we lived in China now. It’s not generational. A lot of my friends, even today, share the same belief as my mom, that the policy was necessary.

Jialing: I think that the majority of the Chinese felt and feel that the one-child policy was good and necessary. That’s what I believed growing up, and I never questioned it. It was presented in the textbooks, on TV, on posters, everywhere. We were never encouraged to debate, and no one really questioned it. It was only after we did this film that we started to question it, and do research. I’m still shocked by the scale of violations to human rights.

What was the catalyst for you being interested in this topic? Nanfu, was it being pregnant for the first time?

Nanfu: The very, very beginning was a conversation between me and Christopher Jörg, who eventually became one of our producers. It was around 2015, the end of the one-child policy, and as someone who didn’t know any Chinese people, he asked me, “You grew up under the one-child policy. What do you think about it?” At the time I saw myself as an expert. I knew there was forced abortion and forced sterilization. It wasn’t until I became pregnant that I realized how little I knew.

And of course you recalled the stigma you experienced in middle school since your family violated the policy by having your little brother.

Nanfu: I didn’t actually think about that then! I remembered it only when we were making the film. You know how, in therapy, you realize something was the cause of something else? This film was like natural therapy for me. I started thinking, “What else do I remember about the one-child policy, and how did it affect me?” What’s funny is that, when Christopher first asked me how it affected me, I said, “Oh, it didn’t affect me because I have a younger brother. It didn’t affect my life.” But psychologically, of course it did. It goes so deep.

In the film, the artist Peng Wang says, “The most tragic thing is when a nation has no memory.” Do you think that this film will help prevent that? Will Chinese people be able to see it? What are your hopes in terms of the Chinese population having access to this film?

Nanfu: It is our hope that the film would serve as a record of this policy—in 50 years, or 100 years, or 500, if humankind still exists. In China, official showings are difficult, but we’ve already shown it in Hong Kong, and in a lot of Mandarin-speaking countries. A lot of Chinese students and those working in the U.S. have also seen the film and told their families. A lot of people from China have asked where they can see it. We have several different channels—one is underground cinema, another is independent film festival, and the other is just making it available to anyone who wants to see it.

There are so many types of corruption in the film, and one of the types is the international adoption market—which was for profit. And a lot of Western families were adopting children whose backgrounds they knew nothing about. How did you feel working with the Utah family whose company was meant to unite the birth families and adopted children? Their purpose was noble, but they were also profiting off of tragedy.

Nanfu: First of all, they were very knowledgeable. They were on the ground and did a lot of research and had a lot of contacts. We wish that they were nonprofit, but it’s not so easy to do nonprofit. There are nonprofits that are connecting adopted children to their birth families, but a lot of them actually had to work with the Chinese government. Otherwise they would not be able to go to China to do work. So, the wife in the Utah reunion company, Longlan Stuy, did reach out to the bigger nonprofits, and tried to share information. But when they knew that what she’s interested in is the scandal and the corruption, the nonprofit would not want to be involved.

Jialing: LongLan was also motivated to do her job because she wasn’t able to give her Chinese adopted daughters the answers they wanted. We were able to join her and spend a lot of time with her on her investigations. A lot of birth parents in China were desperate for help to find their children in the U.S. She felt an emotional obligation to these parents. There was tremendous pressure on her—these people had been looking for their children for 15 or 20 years. They desperately wanted to know if their children are still alive. The Utah couple charged just a hundred dollars for a successful match, compared to the tremendous money in the market.

Nanfu: They also don’t charge Chinese families. They only charge the adoptive families. The adoptive families have to pay for the match. The couple would then collect information and help the Chinese families find their daughters—and that’s free. I do believe that the fee covers the cost in going back and forth. I’m sure they would be happy to get funding to be a nonprofit.

What do you want Western audiences to take away from this film?

Nanfu: I think you said it really well earlier. Two things. One is definitely about choice. What are the consequences when the government takes the choice from you? From women, from families, from everyone? That’s not unique to China. Whether it’s state-forced abortion or state-restricted abortion, it’s all taking choice away from women. We also want Western audiences to see is the propaganda. In China, it’s extreme. But outside, in a more open country, as long as there is government there is always propaganda. It is just more subtle—on TV, in social media, political campaigns. We hope this film can really remind the audience to recognize and examine their surroundings, and the messages that they have been exposed to. To differentiate between propaganda and the truth, and not mistake the two.

Jialing: There’s the relationship between the individual and a government power. We should always be cautious and vigilant when a government tells you to sacrifice yourself for the country. We should also be aware that propaganda can also be invisible—sometimes just presented as a choice. We have to be able to think critically.

Nanfu, you mention in the film that you were given a boy’s name—that means “pillar of the house.” Your parents named you to be strong “like a man,” and of course your film takes a strong stance against the One Child Only policy. How do you think your parents feel about the film? They got what they asked for!

Nanfu: My mom saw the film at Sundance. She’s proud of me as her daughter. Whatever I do, she’s proud. But she still supports the one-child policy. 

I’m weirdly, maybe perversely, proud of my name. My dad gave it to me, and ever since he passed away when I was 11, I’ve felt like it’s the one thing I’m holding onto that he passed to. Often I think, “Look, I am strong. Stronger than a man! Not as strong as a man.” 

Are you optimistic about the future of China, now that the policy is over? 

Jialing: For us, it’s not over. Now there’s the two-child policy. It’s not because they realized that reproductive rights are basic human rights or learned their lessons, or are more aware of their human rights violations. It’s because the country doesn’t have enough young labor to develop the country. The mentality is still there.

Nanfu: I am not hopeful [laughs]. I think the propaganda and censorship are much more aggressive now than in the past, and more subtle. China’s economy is getting so much attention from the world, and so many countries want to participate in the Chinese market that they are paying even less attention to human rights. When I say it’s aggressive, China is censoring not only its own media, but foreign media outlet, and even buying stakes in foreign media outlets, and as a result censoring anything that is negative about the country. And a lot of outlets need the advertising revenue, so agree to that. So all the messages have become more subtle, and more acceptable to people outside of China. Since 2016, the crackdown on civil society in China is much worse.

Do you plan to have more children?

Nanfu: I want to! I want to have a second child for my son. I want him to grow up and have a sibling, and have a best friend for life. But I think it will be difficult. Making films while being a mom is really the most difficult thing!