China’s One-Child Nightmare

A Mother Reflects on Her People’s Population War

Nanfu Wang was born in China in 1985, six years after the launch of its one-child policy, and she grew up in a world awash in messaging about it. Billboards, slogans, outdoor murals, schoolbooks, children's songs, TV shows, drama and fine arts performances – all these praised the glories of one-child families. Wall-to-wall propaganda promoted one-child families as a means of raising standards of living and creating happiness. At the same time, the policy was said to be a critical part of "a population war" for national survival, necessary to prevent mass starvation. And so punishments varying from fines to loss of home to forced abortion and sterilization were swiftly visited upon violators.

The policy was part of the backdrop of Nanfu's life, and she never gave much thought to it until she became pregnant with her first child. She had by then moved to New York and established herself as a filmmaker, and becoming a mother had caused her to reflect on her own childhood. This included reexamining the policy from the perspective of a new mother. She could hardly bear being separated from her newborn son. What was it like for parents under one-child policy Chinese? And, what about the officials charged with carrying it out?As a girl, she had taken it in stride, but now she didn't know what or how to think about it.

So, she returned to China with her infant son, camera, and a host of questions in tow. She talked with family members and officials, including her village's chief official and the midwife charged with enforcing the policy. "What was it like for you?" she asked. The government had lifted the one-child restriction in 2015, and presumably, people felt freer to speak openly about it.

But surprisingly, few were critical. While a lot of people were noticeably conflicted, often because they had participated in things they weren't comfortable with, most of them ended up shrugging their moral ambiguities off on the government. Here are some things they said:

  • "I had to put the national interest above my personal feelings."
  • "We were fighting a population war."
  • "It might be cruel. But policy is policy. What could we do? We had to follow the chain of command."
  •  "It was like fighting a war. Death is inevitable."

Over and over, the same theme emerged, "We had no choice." Shuqin Jiang, a highly-decorated family planning official, explained how she got acclimated to her job:

I initially thought that forcing abortions was an atrocity. I wanted to quit several times. But the leader said to me, "It is a national policy and as a party member, the more challenging the job, the more determined you should be to take it on."

And take it on, she did. She continued:

Many of the fetuses aborted were eight or nine months along. When they were aborted, they were still alive. Sometimes pregnant women tried to run away. We had to chase after them.

And she unequivocally affirmed all of this:

Looking back, the policy was absolutely correct. Our leaders were prophetic. If not for this policy, our country would have perished.

She spoke affably, smiling at times, even chuckling as she recounted one incident where a mother ran away from an abortion naked, leaving officials in the awkward position of not knowing what to grab to get her back. To all appearances, she could have been a grandmother talking about playing with her (living) grandchildren.

Nanfu captured all of this and more in her film One Child Nation: The Truth Behind the Propaganda. By project's end, she was visibly dismayed. No one seemed to question the policy or how it was implemented. Worse, some people criticized her for raising questions about it. She signs off with a mix of unresolved anger and sadness. The idea of fighting a "population war" was a common slogan used by the government, she reflected, but it ended up becoming a war against its own people.

Indeed, it did – in more ways than one. One Child Nation exposes what can happen when people put their trust in government to make the rules apart from any higher authority. To do so is to risk giving oneself over to depravity (see Romans, 1), doing and affirming things that would have appalled us before we gave in to them. To all appearances, Shuqin Jiang looked and spoke like any well-meaning grandma. But what she said and did and affirmed goes beyond moral ambiguity. It is the stuff of unmitigated evil.

And it took place all across China for thirty years. It was overt evil to kill innocent children. It was subversive evil to force people to do it in violation of their own consciences. In doing this, the Chinese Communists assaulted their people's very humanity. That may be the most insidious evil of all, in that it destroys people from the inside out, making them participants in their own destruction.

To guard against giving ourselves over to the same evil, everyone should see this film – preferably with a group, so you can talk it over afterwards. Click here to see the trailer or here to stream on Amazon (free for Amazon Prime).

 is Deputy Editor of Salvo and writes on apologetics and matters of faith.

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