PARK CITY — The Chinese government claims its one-child policy, which lasted from 1979 until 2015, prevented 400 million births.
But at what cost?
"One Child Nation," a documentary that premiered Saturday at the Sundance Film Festival explores the consequences of a ruthless population control campaign: forced abortions, mandated sterilizations and abandoned babies. For 36 years, the government limited couples to having just one child (or two for rural families) in an attempt to curb China's rapid population growth. Families that had more children risked having their homes demolished, and in some cases, having their children abducted by the government.
“China started a war against population growth, but it became a war against its own people,” said Nanfu Wang, who directed the film along with Jialing Zhang. Wang appears in the documentary as a new mother who travels back to her hometown in China after attending school and living in the United States for several years. There, she talks to family and community members about how the now-discontinued policy affected them.
Wang interviews artist Peng Weng, who captured photos of near-fullterm fetuses discarded under bridges in plastic medical waste bags. She meets ex-human trafficker Duan Yueneng, who said he found and sold more than 10,000 abandoned babies in his career before he was arrested and spent six years in prison, despite the fact he was being paid by state-run orphanages. And she asks former family planning official Huaru Yuan, who said she performed between 50,000 and 60,000 abortions and sterilizations, why she went along with a policy she felt was wrong.
Women were “tied up and dragged to us like pigs,” Yuan said in the film. “The state gave the order, but I carried it out."
Now Yuan exclusively treats infertility, working to bring children into the world to make up for the lives she prevented.
Ahead of Sundance, London-based sales agent and distributor Dogwoof acquired international rights to "One Child Nation," and producers are seeking distribution in North America.
But that chapter is not entirely over, and "One Child Nation" offers chilling lessons for governments looking to influence population size today.
"The country’s insistence on controlling nearly every aspect of its population continues to haunt its citizenry, with the shift from one-child to two-child family policy yielding a whole new era of propaganda," Eric Kohn wrote in a review for IndieWire.
When asked if the movie is a warning against government policies that interfere with the family, Wang said, "I think it's a warning against government policy in general if it’s at the cost of human lives. If we put a social agenda above an individual, then every policy could be just like the one child policy."
Did the policy help China's economy?
A baby boom in the early 1960s caused Chinese government leaders to fear an exponentially expanding population would cause mass starvation, according to Dudley Poston, professor of sociology at Texas A&M University and the author of several books about China.
Since the implementation of the one-child policy in 1979, China's fertility rate has dropped from over 6.0 children per woman in the early 1970s to around 1.5 children per woman today, said Poston. At the same time, quality of life for Chinese citizens has improved dramatically.
"It would be a mistake, however, to attribute the dramatic reduction in China’s fertility rate solely to the policies," he said. When the one-child policy came into effect, China was modernizing. The increased availability of birth control coincided with enhanced educational and occupational opportunities for women, and so women voluntarily opted for fewer children, he explained.
Not only was the policy likely unnecessary, the lasting effects of propaganda that promoted single-child families might now be hurting China's economy in the form of a growing elderly population and a shortage of young people joining the workforce, said Kay Johnson, professor of Asian studies at Hampshire College.
After the Chinese government discontinued the one-child policy in 2015, replacing it with a two-child policy, it braced for a population boom. "They were shocked," said Johnson. China's birthrate last year was lower than it's been since the famine in 1960. "They waited too long to loosen that policy," she said.
"Several surveys in 2010 and later support the idea that Chinese couples don’t want more than one child," said Poston. "The majority of surveyed couples tell researchers they only want one child because it is too expensive to raise more."
"The same results are found in South Korea, the country with the lowest fertility rate in the world, 1.1 children per woman," he added.
Brian Stuy, who lives in Lehi, Utah, appears in "One Child Nation" with his wife and three daughters whom they adopted from China. Together, they run a nonprofit called Research China, which helps connect adoptees to their Chinese birth families. Through his own research, Stuy discovered that many of the babies that ended up in China's orphanages were not in fact unwanted but were abandoned or confiscated from families because of the one-child policy.
While Stuy fundamentally agrees with efforts to control population growth for environmental reasons, he finds the Chinese government's methods to be indefensible.
"There was so much pain inflicted upon an entire nation for a period of time and then at the end of that time, the government just basically says, OK we’re going to change it now ... now it's two children," said Stuy. "It just gives you this feeling of all that pain and suffering being put on an altar and just left there. The government walked away and treated it as nothing. That’s the power of this documentary."
"One Child Nation" shines a blinding light on the propaganda the Chinese government used to convince people the one-child policy was necessary, from murals to songs to local dance performances. Wang herself even participated in a propaganda choir as a teenager.
Still today, much of the nation believes the one-child policy was necessary.
Shuqin Jiang, an award-winning family planning official featured in the documentary, said, “Looking back, the policy was correct … our country would have perished.”
“I had to put the national interest above my personal feelings,” she said. According to Johnson, local officials were incentivized through rewards and severe punishment. They risked being publicly shamed and losing their bonuses, part of their salaries or their jobs if they did not implement population policy well.
“There was such a shared sense of helplessness,” Wang said in the film's narration.
One after another, interviewees repeat the phrases, "The policy was so strict," and "We had no choice."
Wang hopes people who see the film will recognize and reflect on the propaganda that exists in their own cultures to promote a particular viewpoint.
"Everyone who sees this film will notice the propaganda," Wang told the Deseret News. "Propaganda is so pervasive in our lives. It exists not only in China."
Population growth around the world
The World Scientists' second Warning to Humanity, a document released in December 2017 and signed by more than 20,000 scientists in 184 nations, outlines disturbing trends associated with a 35 percent rise in human population in the past 25 years, including deforestation, animal extinction, fresh water depletion, ocean acidification and dangerous climate conditions.
While fertility rates are generally declining around the world, we are still adding about a billion people to the planet every dozen years, said John Seager, president of Population Connection, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C.
Over 90 countries are at or below replacement rate, meaning the average number of children per couple is two or less, according to Seager. The World Scientists' report attributes the slowdown in some regions to investments in education for women.
In the United States, the total fertility rate is 1,765.5 births per 1,000 women. Just two states — South Dakota and Utah — had a total fertility rate above replacement level in 2017, according to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Center for Health.
"Look around and increasingly, the concern is a dearth of people, a dearth of babies, a decline in fertility rates that seem irreversible in Europe and East Asia," said Johnson. "Economies grow on the basis of increasing population."
While a growing population may be good for a country's GDP, it is not good for quality of life, argues Seager.
"The economy matters because people matter," said Seager. "The key is to look at this on the human scale and what is good for people. What is good for people is to make sure every child has an opportunity to have a great education, stable environment and great health care. It’s easier to do that when you have smaller families."
But there's a right way and a wrong way to influence population size. According to Seager, the right way to control population is to empower women everywhere with education and freedom to control their own reproductive destiny, whether that's to have no children or a lot of children, Seager said.
"People interfering with other people is wrong. People should keep their nose out of other people’s lives," said Seager.
As population growth continues to be an issue many nations and environmental activists seek to address, "One Child Nation," demonstrates what not to do.
"The film is a valuable record and a sober but frightening illustration of the dark side of this government-controlled experiment," David Rooney wrote in a review for the Hollywood Reporter.
"We shouldn’t have a one-child policy or a two-child policy — we should have a policy of respecting women," said Seager.