'One Child Nation' Documentary Explores The Dark Side Of Chinese Policy

8 hours ago
Originally published on August 13, 2019 8:42 pm

Filmmaker Nanfu Wang grew up in rural China under the country's one-child policy, which was announced in 1979 and not officially rescinded until 2015.

Born in 1985, Wang never knew a life without it — as a kid, she remembers seeing propaganda promoting the rule everywhere.

"At some point, it just became a normal part of life, just like the air, the water, the tree," she says. "And you just stop paying attention, stop questioning, because it has always been there."

There were propaganda matchboxes, lunchboxes, murals and songs on TV.

Growing up, Wang remember seeing cartoons that depicted people who had more than one child as "almost criminals, or backward, or uneducated," she says.

Wang says anyone who had a sibling — as she did — "grew up with a sense of shame."

Because Wang's family lived in a less-populated rural area, where agricultural laborers were in high demand, they were allowed to have a second child — as long as they waited five years after the first and paid a hefty fine.

Her birth didn't deter her parents' desire for a son. It's even reflected in her name, Nanfu — nan, which means male, and fu, which means pillar.

"Before I was born, my parents had hoped that they would have a boy. And they picked the name, and the day I was born, turned out I was a girl," Wang says. "So they said, 'Oh, we'll just give this name to her anyway,' " hoping that she would grow up to be as strong as a man, Wang says.

With co-director Jialing Zhang, Wang has made a new documentary called One Child Nation. It's an unflinching look at the ripple effects of China's one-child policy: how it tore families apart, how it forced abortions and sterilizations and how it fed the trafficking of unwanted baby girls.

Wang now lives in the U.S. and has a son.

This interview has been edited lightly for clarity.

Interview Highlights

On how motherhood prompted her to make the film

It was then I started having questions and asking my mom what it was like for [her] when [she] were pregnant. And the stories that she told me, and my family members told me, made me realize how little I knew about the one-child policy and how much of my knowledge was taught by the government. I had so many questions I wanted to explore, and I also wanted people who are like me to have a chance to learn what truly happened under the one-child policy.

Director Nanfu Wang's One Child Nation documentary draws on her own family's experience with the restrictive policy. She's pictured here as a child with her parents.
Amazon Studios

On interviewing her uncle, whose infant daughter died after he abandoned her

It was really challenging to approach my family and to request an interview. It was more difficult than asking a stranger, because I knew my uncle, and there were so many times I mustered my courage and tried to ask him, "Hey, uncle, can I talk to you about this?" But then I knew he had not talked about it for decades, and so several times I almost brought it up — and I couldn't.

And eventually, when I finally did, it was the first time we had a parent-to-parent conversation. As a mom myself, I couldn't imagine any parent would abandon, give away and see the child die — and how could you do it?

And he told me that his mom, my grandma, threatened to commit suicide. So she said, "It's either her or me. If you keep the infant daughter, then I'll die." And I question myself all the time: If I were in his position, what would I do? And I don't have the confidence to say, "Oh, exactly, I would resist. I would not do the same thing that they did." And that's scary.

On why Wang's mother still defends the one-child policy

At first, it didn't make any sense, and I was very, very surprised. And even to today, my mom had seen the finished film, and she still believed that the policy was necessary. Looking back, I just understood how powerful the propaganda was. It shaped people's mind[s], especially people who lived their entire life in China and were never encouraged to think, to question, to reflect.

The narrative about the one-child policy, the dominant one, is: It contributed to the economy — otherwise the entire China would starve to death. And people buy into that narrative, even though, for people who understood Chinese history, they know that the starvation was caused by the Great Leap Forward — which is a man-made disaster.

On how open her subjects were during their interviews

I was surprised about how open they were too. But then I realized the reason that they were open was because, one, I grew up there — everybody knows me. And more importantly, I asked them: I wanted to know what you witnessed, what you experienced. I wanted to know the history; I wasn't asking them to criticize the policy.

And when you look at the film, almost everyone was positive about the policy, even though they suffered really painful consequences. I think that was the reason why they felt comfortable and open to speak frankly of what they believe.

On the impact she hopes to have with her films

I think the first step of any change comes from the people who live in China. And that's why I think the most important impact I hope that documentaries would have is to change people's perception. Because personally, I experienced how I have learned so much, and unlearned so much, about what I was taught growing up about China. And a lot of people that I met told me — for example, they've never heard of the Tiananmen Square protest until the day that they left [mainland] China. And I hope my documentaries could serve that purpose: to make Chinese know the truth of what happened.

Sam Gringlas and Mallory Yu produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.


When you turn on the lights in your home or switch on your TV, you may be contributing to the warming of the climate - or you may not. It all depends on how your electric company is generating that power. Utilities are seen as key to slowing climate change. And to explain why, we are now joined by NPR's Dan Charles.

Hey, Dan.


CHANG: So I don't ever think about my electric company unless there's, like, some blackout. And then I'm like, what is going on? But why are electric utilities so important in fighting climate change?

CHARLES: Because electricity is the big hope. Electricity is the one big energy source that can be free of carbon emissions. You can make it from the sun. You can make it from the wind. Tap the heat of the Earth, hydro power.

CHANG: So many options.

CHARLES: Some people include nuclear. Other people say nuclear is too dangerous for other reasons. But that is the reason why utilities are sitting right in the middle of these discussions over how to get to zero carbon emissions, which is what scientists say is necessary if we're going to avoid some of the most catastrophic effects of climate change in the future. But electricity is not clean yet.

CHANG: Well, how much of it is already?

CHARLES: Across the country, about 60% is still coming from fossil fuels, coal, natural gas. That is changing, but slowly, and a lot of people say it's not fast enough. I took a reporting trip recently to North Carolina, sat down with one of the biggest electric utilities in the country, Duke Energy. Duke Energy is planning to shut down some coal plants, but it is mostly then planning to build natural gas plants instead. That does cut greenhouse emissions, but definitely does not get you to zero.

CHANG: Right. But we keep hearing about how, like, solar and wind energy are, like, the cheapest sources of energy. So why aren't utilities going all-renewable?

CHARLES: That was the question I asked Duke Energy, and the utility kept insisting that a big, fast shift right now to renewables would make electricity more expensive. Remember, up till now, most utilities have not had to include in their accounting any cost to the environment, just cost to the consumer. If they got hit by something like a carbon tax, suddenly, coal and natural gas would be way more expensive, and solar would look a lot cheaper. We don't have that now.

But there's another reason why utilities are not super excited about going all in. This is kind of a paradigm shift for utilities. It complicates their job because, remember, they can't control the wind and the sun the way they do coal and gas plants.

CHANG: Sure.

CHARLES: They can't just turn a switch and produce more of it when people need more.

CHANG: It's a big problem when the sun goes down, and then everybody starts turning on the lights. Then what do the utility companies do?

CHARLES: Right. So they could do some things. Like, when the sun is shining, charge up some humongous batteries so the power's there later when people need it. But also, instead of just managing the supply of electricity, maybe they could manage the demand for it. So for instance, they could control people's electric appliances. Say, a water heater - they could turn it on when there's plenty of electricity, when the sun is shining. Sun goes down - they turn it off again, matching the demand to the supply.

CHANG: Ah, like time shifting the demand for electricity.

CHARLES: Yeah, which is a technical challenge, but it also raises this other really big question. If I'm a traditional electric utility, how do I make money doing that?

CHANG: I mean, are they even allowed to make money doing something like that?

CHARLES: Well, that is a question. Remember, these are heavily regulated companies because they're often monopolies. And the regulations usually say an electric utility is required to provide reliable power at the lowest possible cost, period. That's it.

CHANG: Yeah.

CHARLES: But now they're saying, well, maybe we should come up with new rules that say, for instance, electric utilities can charge consumers not just for generating the power, but also for things like energy storage or time shifting demand for power, phasing out fossil fuel plants early. Basically, make it profitable to cut carbon emissions. They're starting to do that in places like New York or Minnesota, Colorado.

CHANG: So how expensive would this be? Do we have any idea?

CHARLES: Well, starting down this road is actually not expensive at all. Utilities are doing it already just because wind and solar is cheap. But things do get expensive, probably, when you get closer to zero carbon emissions, when you're relying on wind and solar not just for 50% or 60% of your electricity but 100% of it because you have to prepare for these rare events when you need a lot of renewable energy for a very long time. Think a really cold, long, cloudy winter when, you know, there's not much...

CHANG: No sun.

CHARLES: ...Not much sun and people are turning their electric heaters way up. To prepare for those real events, you would need to build a lot. That's when it could end up costing you real money. We don't know exactly how much that is yet.

CHANG: That is NPR's Dan Charles.

Thanks, Dan.

CHARLES: Nice to be here, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.