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‘One Child Nation’ exposes the consequences of ignorance

“One Child Nation” (2019). Cast: Nanfu Wang, Brian Stuy, Longlan Stuy, Tunde Wang, Peng Wang, Huaru Tuan, Zhihao Wang, Shuqin Jiang, Zaodi Wang, Zhimei Wang, Jiaoming Pang. Directors: Nanfu Wang and Zhang Lynn. Web site. Trailer.

It’s all too easy to become so focused on what we want that we may fail to think things through. What’s more, the ante for this can get significantly upped when we examine the ramifications for taking no action. Now imagine what can happen when such a scenario unfolds on a national scale. Under such circumstances, there may be a tendency to act rashly, something that can have dire consequences, a situation detailed in the compelling new documentary, “One Child Nation.”

Chinese-born filmmaker Nanfu Wang didn’t think much about the one-child-only “family planning” policy of her homeland until after she immigrated to America and became pregnant herself. Having been born in 1985, six years after the policy took effect, she grew up accepting it as just the way things were, much like nearly all of her countrymen. But, once outside of China, free from the restrictions she would have faced if she had stayed, she began to contemplate the nature – and wisdom – of the policy.

The policy, adopted in 1979, was instituted to ward off a projected famine due to China’s skyrocketing population. In prior years, food shortages resulted in many deaths by starvation. And, with population growth projections in place at the time, it was believed the problem would only worsen, perhaps even leading to cannibalism. Given that, the new policy was introduced to stave off that apparent inevitability, with strict enforcement measures in place to ensure compliance. Restricting families to one child only was seen as a way to avoid tragedy and raise the standard of living for the average household, not to mention a legally dictated civic responsibility.

To help promote the policy, the government and the ruling Communist Party launched an aggressive and ubiquitous propaganda program to drill it into the minds of the Chinese people. The landscape was plastered cheesy, Maoist-style billboards, placards and signage, and the message was emblazoned on playing cards, matchbook covers and all other manner of printed material. The policy was also promoted through traveling stage shows, choral performances and music videos, as well as in the classroom songs taught to schoolchildren. There was no escaping it.

And that included the watchful eye of authorities, too. Women who gave birth were frequently force-sterilized after having their allotted child. Those who became pregnant a second time were often involuntarily forced into abortions, some of them late term in nature with the fetuses carelessly disposed of in trash heaps. Those who actually gave birth a second time generally had their children taken or killed, sometimes even by the very midwives who delivered them. Others found themselves desperately having to hide their offspring to avoid detection and seizure by officials. Mothers of twins faced similar treatment, having to settle for one child only, with the other murdered or confiscated by authorities. While some exceptions for second children were made for families in underpopulated rural areas, as was the case with Nanfu’s family, these instances were far from the rule. To call the practices barbaric was an understatement.

To complicate matters, most Chinese families wanted to have boys, and those who gave birth to girls often abandoned their daughters, surrendering them to orphanages or leaving them in baskets in public places like markets in hopes that someone would take them. This practice was so pervasive and well known that Nanfu’s brother, Zhihao, freely acknowledges this, admitting that, if he had been born a girl, he probably would have been left on someone’s doorstep.

In 1992, when China authorized the adoption of “orphans” by Western nations, the policy developed yet another shameful wrinkle – the emergence of a lucrative market in black market babies. Would-be parents in countries like the U.S., Canada and Spain thus found adoption opportunities available to them that previously didn’t exist. Unfortunately, given the criminal operations proliferating in China, those overseas parents couldn’t be guaranteed that they would be adopting bona fide orphans; many were girls abandoned by their birth families, twins snatched from their siblings or children simply grabbed off the streets whose backgrounds conveniently couldn’t be verified (if any attempt to do so was even made).

After years of burgeoning unanticipated problems, China discovered an even bigger issue: By limiting families to only one child over the course of two generations, the country has been left with an enormous population gap, a severely diminished working age citizenry that is bound to be incapable of financially supporting the nation’s elderly retirees. And this doesn’t even take into account a smaller consumer market or an insufficient number of laborers to fill all of the available jobs. Consequently, in 2015, the nation began to aggressively promote a two-child policy, one that officials hope will eventually undo the damage inflicted by a 35-year shortsighted social experiment.

While many contend that China’s one-child policy was instituted with the best of intentions, that it was an essential move to avoid an impending disaster, there are those who argue that its implementation wasn’t adequately thought through. Its draconian nature, critics say, went too far and ended up creating even more problems than it was meant to solve. Such is what can happen without due regard for the power of the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains we manifest the reality we experience through our thoughts, beliefs and intents.

While some might legitimately claim that hindsight is 20/20, there are those who would contend that the policy was a product of the process of un-conscious creation or creation by default, where the outcome is sought at any cost, without due consideration for the consequences. In a scenario like this, the beliefs are so focused on the results that no attention is given to the fallout – the pain and emotional suffering of those forcefully subjected to the policy, the criminal activity that arose from it, and the extensive, potentially irreparable damage to the nation’s population demographics. This was made all the more worse by the fact that this program emerged from the collective beliefs of virtually an entire country, a potent act of co-creation whose implementation was fueled by the masses and continually reinforced through an aggressive propaganda campaign, perpetuating its existence. Stopping a juggernaut like that is nearly impossible, especially since it had been allowed to become so ingrained in the nation’s psyche. In fact, to counteract the effect, China has had to introduce its new two-child policy with almost equal vigor to its predecessor – and again employing a propaganda program not unlike what preceded it.

Some might wonder why China’s population didn’t rise up against this policy. But, when one considers the government’s violent response to the peaceful 1989 Tiananmen Square student protests, it’s easy to see how citizens would fall into line. When faced with severe sanctions for failure to comply with the policy, most of the nation’s population capitulated, often saying “What choice did I have?” Few would probably argue with their reactions under the circumstances.

Regrettably, this illustrates what can happen when we give away our power, when we allow our beliefs to become distorted by the pressure placed upon us by others. Admittedly, it’s easy (and arguably unfair) for those of us not under the thumb of that kind of burden to say what we think the affected should do. But this scenario nevertheless shows how perilous the circumstances can become if we continue to allow ourselves to follow a path such as this.

The impact of this lingers even now after the policy’s abandonment. Many Chinese citizens still believe that the one-child policy was the right thing to do, including Nanfu’s mother, Zaodi, who was allowed an exemption to give birth to a second child. This is even more evident among government authorities who were responsible for enforcement, such as highly decorated family planner Shuqin Jiang, who insists that the policy was necessary, despite whatever “sacrifices” might have been made along the way. These attitudes thus show the power and persistence of beliefs – and how they can enable our manifestations to become so forcefully entrenched, even when they’re no longer officially in force.

Of course, it is possible to make up for the mistakes; conscious creation always makes redemption possible. The two-child policy, for example, is an attempt to restore the population shortfall, even though the degree of damage that was done by its predecessor may take quite some time to rectify (and perhaps not even completely).

But what’s perhaps more meaningful are the individual efforts that have been launched to try to make up for past missteps. These initiatives in and of themselves may not have widespread impact, but they illustrate changes in the zeitgeist that could eventually take hold and help to reshape the prevailing perspective to prevent atrocities and shortsightedness from recurring. For instance, midwife Huaru Tuan, who delivered Nanfu, acknowledges the immorality of some of her actions in the past – the abortions, the forced sterilizations, the killings – and today has devoted herself to assisting couples with infertility issues. She admits that this won’t make up for what she calls her “sins,” but she hopes that, with each child she helps an otherwise-infertile couple to bring into the world, she helps to make up for the lives she took because she was simply following orders.

Likewise, former village official Tunde Wang, who was once responsible for calling out those who violated the policy, openly expresses his regrets about his past actions, admitting that they were wrong and that they tore him up when forced to do so. While his confessions may not bring back the children who were lost or wipe away the punishments inflicted on “the guilty,” his sincere desire to express his regrets feeds positive energy and healing beliefs into the nation’s collective unconscious, contributions that, one would hope, will help to prevent such tragedies in the future.

Making others aware of the failings of this policy help, too. Artist Peng Wang, for example, has created troubling but poignant works that include imagery of the discarded fetuses, a shocking but attention-getting way of informing the unaware of just how horrific the policy could be. Journalist Jiaoming Pang meanwhile wrote an exposé about the separation of twins, The Orphans of Shao, a project so controversial that it forced him to escape from China to Hong Kong for fear of his own safety. And then there are the efforts of Brian and Longlan Stuy, a Utah couple who have adopted three girls from China and subsequently learned about the black market dealings involving the nation’s orphanages and adoption agencies. They have since launched a service to help parents learn the truth about the backgrounds of their adopted children, all in hopes of helping to set the record straight for those who may have been unfairly separated from their families.

When a nation’s survival is on the line, as China claimed was the case in 1979, it may be easy to embrace desperate measures. And the one-child program may have staved off the tragedy it was meant to prevent. But is it wise to cavalierly adopt policies that could potentially raise all manner of other issues in the process? That’s what “One Child Nation” attempts to draw into sharp focus, offering us a powerful cautionary tale about what can happen when actions stem from inadequate thought.

Nanfu Wang’s insightful, sometimes-gruesome, often-appalling look at China’s failed policy details the horrendous emotional damage inflicted upon all those the policy touched, as well as the negative social implications that arose from it both at present and for the future. Yet the director skillfully restrains herself from taking an adversarial position with her interview subjects, letting their own words speak for themselves, for better or worse. This impressive offering earned the film the Grand Jury Prize in the Documentary Category at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year.

When it comes to our family, emotions are often charged, even under ideal circumstances. So when that part of our life is intruded upon by a cold, impersonal force that dictates terms to us about how we handle its affairs, we might well feel imposed upon, perhaps even violated. Such was the case for the citizens of China for 35 years, a situation whose enduring implications are felt even today.  We can only hope we heed the message of this film – and never make those same mistakes again.

Copyright © 2019, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

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