One Child Nation film still woman with baby

The documentary film One Child Nation tells a personal story, yet also sounds a universal warning. It recounts a very recent (in our lifetime), modern tale of how a dictatorial country can set policy that, even though inhumane, is obeyed by the masses. Those same people also suffer the consequences.

What the policy was, when

The subject of the documentary is the Chinese One-Child Policy, a birth planning program launched in 1979. That policy was written into China’s constitution in 1982. Recently, after 35 years, the country expanded to a Two-Child Policy despite declaring that “the one-child policy has made the country more powerful, the people more prosperous and the world more peaceful.”

The filmmakers of One Child Nation (including director and producers Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang) were all born in China under this program, and they uncover how Chinese officials convinced/coerced families in small villages to give up their reproductive rights. Nanfu Wang, a 32-year-old first-time mother now living in the US, goes on camera to ask relatives, neighbors, family planning officials, doctors, and human traffickers how this restrictive policy was possibly enforced.

Dramatic stories

Throughout the policy era, propaganda touting either the beauty of having just one child or conversely the punishments for more than one child (fines, losing your home, and your child) were blended into background of life in China. It eerily alternated between threats and beautiful art, both styles reflected in billboards, textbooks, opera, folk dance, theatrical performances, children songs, and TV ads. Nanfu even unquestioningly participated in such folk dances as she was growing up. Although this propaganda was omnipresent, nonetheless, second children and unwanted daughters were still conceived. Tens of thousands, if not more, sterilizations and abortions were performed — often by force.

Nanfu interviews one elderly midwife who had performed sterilizations and abortions in accordance with the policy, executing these orders for 27 years. Today, out of guilt, she only treats infertility with the hope of creating a new life to reverse each of the 50,000 killings she performed.

Chinese culture has a strong preference for male offspring. Since no ultrasounds were used during the period to determine the sex, baby girls were born and abandoned to die. Nanfu’s own mother, whose name means “bringing brother soon,” helped her own younger brother discard his baby daughter in basket with $20 with the hopes that someone would take her. The family checked on the little infant, but she died in the market days later. Nanfu’s mother recalls this story quite matter-of-factly, although Nanfu’s uncle tears up, remarking how his daughter would be 27 or 28 now.

One Child Nation


Footage from 2002 shows the government recognizing family planning officials with pompous awards and reporting on state TV that the One-Child Policy had “prevented 338 million births.” And, the policy went on for another 13 years. The general consensus of the villagers in the film was that the program was good for the country.

China began allowing overseas adoptions in 1992, with at least 130,000 babies adopted overseas during the policy. That opportunity led to nationwide fraud and corruption, with many “overquota children” being kidnapped and sold to orphanages. Many of the adopted girls were not orphans at all. Nanfu follows the efforts of an American family trying to identify the Chinese families of their adopted daughters, as well as setting up a nonprofit to help other families in the same situation.


The midwife that was interviewed rationalized that when she aborted full-term living fetuses, “I had to put national interest above my personal feelings.” Watching the film, it is all too hard to comprehend. Nanfu comments on the irony of growing up in China where abortions were forced and then moving to the US where abortions are restricted. “Both are taking away woman’s control of their own bodies.”

A specific story is a warning tale for a controlling government

The One-Child Policy resulted in too few young people to care for the elderly. Since 2015, China’s new policy has been “two children is just right.” All evidence of the old policy is being erased, replaced by Two-Child Policy messaging. If the memory of the recent past fades, the only thing left will be today’s propaganda, and no lessons will be learned. That’s why we need films like One Child Nation, so the past is not forgotten.

This restrained and subtle film won the Sundance Grand Jury Prize for Documentary. One Child Nation is available to stream on Amazon.