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Documentary Review: 'One Child Nation'


In 1979, China began a mandatory one-child policy. Meant to address what Chinese officials saw as a looming population crisis, it was a brutal experiment on an unprecedented scale, involving forced sterilizations and abortions. It's now chronicled in a new film. Critic Bob Mondello reviews the documentary "One Child Nation."

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Among the first images on screen - uniformed soldiers marching in formation, a seemingly endless army that makes visual the notion that China is the most populous nation on earth. Then we hear the voice of filmmaker Nanfu Wang.


NANFU WANG: I was born in China in 1985, a time when China's population crisis was making headlines around the world.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: There are more than a billion Chinese, that one big statistic...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: By the middle of the next century, if China's families have an average of three children, there will be starvation. However, with one child per family, the standard of living doubles.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: So now there's a...

WANG: Six years before I was born, China launched its one-child policy. I never thought much about what it meant for me or anyone until I learned that I was going to be a mom.

MONDELLO: Wang had, by this time, moved to the U.S. And when her baby was born prematurely and was placed in intensive care, she found that separation traumatic. It made her think of her family. What must things have been like when she was born, she wondered, a girl in a family so anxious to have a son that the name they gave her means man who is a pillar of the family. Her mother's name is similarly freighted, boys being so prized in China.


WANG: Her parents named her Zaoti (ph), which means bring a younger brother soon.

MONDELLO: Soon she did get a younger brother, but when they grew up, the one-child policy presented them and other families who didn't get a son on the first try with a terrible dilemma.


WANG: She later helped her younger brother abandon his daughter in the market so he could try again for a son.

MONDELLO: Abandoned babies - hundreds of thousands of them - and forced sterilizations, abortions, twins separated, demolished houses for families that violated the policy, all in the name of prosperity and the greater good, buttressed by propaganda songs, posters, playing cards selling the notion of the better world they were building.


WANG: None of my family questioned the policy or how it was implemented.

MONDELLO: Using her family as a way in, Wang questions her parents and grandparents, the village elder who nearly sterilized her mother, a family planning official who says that, in fighting a population war, deaths are inevitable. She talks with people sent to jail for human trafficking, for the crime of selling abandoned babies to orphanages. And working with co-director Jialing Zhang, she hears about a whole world of fraud when it comes to the backstories told by those orphanages.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: You can begin to see patterns. This is the location that the orphanage told the adoptive families where their child was found. And so you could see orphanage gates, civil affairs, orphanage, civil affairs, orphanage. It's clear that they're making up the information because they're using the same locations over and over and over again.

MONDELLO: The filmmakers' interviews get at the personal impact of the policy while their visuals express its enormity. If government figures are correct, by 1998, China's one-child policy had prevented more than 300 million births - but at what cost, asked the filmmakers. Outside the country, the policy was seen as a human rights tragedy. Inside, they discovered that the people most affected seem still to think it was painful but necessary. When asked about it, they repeatedly offer the same answer...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: (Foreign language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: (Foreign language spoken).

MONDELLO: ...I had no choice, the state gave the order. Then, after almost two generations, in 2015, the state changed course. The one-child policy is no more - in part, say the filmmakers, because...


WANG: Now there aren't enough young people in China to work and care for the elderly, so China is introducing the new family planning policy.

MONDELLO: The banners, the songs all say, now two is just right. I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.
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