Independent Lens


One Child Nation

After the birth of her first child, filmmaker Nanfu Wang returns to China to speak with her family and explore the ripple effect of that country's devastating social experiment, the one-child policy. At its core, One Child Nation is a riveting personal story revealing shocking human rights violations and forces us all to reckon with the consequences of blind obedience.

AIRED: March 30, 2020 | 1:26:05

- I was born in China in 1985,

a time when China's population crisis

was making headlines around the world.

I left a country where the government

forced women to abort, and I moved to another country

where governments restrict abortion.

Both are about taking away

women's control of their own bodies.

narrator: Filmmakers Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang

capture the repercussions of China's one-child policy.

- China started a war against population growth,

but it became a real war against its own people.

The one-child policy lasted for 35 years.

Every trace is being erased.

The only thing left will be propaganda.

narrator: "One Child Nation," now only on Independent Lens.

[uplifting music]

[dramatic music]

[marching footsteps thudding rhythmically]

[marching footsteps thudding rhythmically]

[crowd cheering]

[all chanting in unison]

[cheers and applause]

- I was born in China in 1985,

a time when China's population crisis

was making headlines around the world.

- There are more than a billion Chinese.

That one big statistic, more than anything else,

is at the heart of that country's

huge economic problems.

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.

- So now there's a desperate effort under way

to control the population,

to limit families to just one child.

Chinese officials are using fines,

economic incentives, and propaganda.

Billboards like this one are up all over the country.

They have a long way to go.

[indistinct chatter]

- Six years before I was born,

China launched its one-child policy.

I grew up seeing reminders of the policy everywhere.

They were painted on the walls,

printed on playing cards...

calendars, matches,

snack boxes, posters.

All of them blended into the background

of life in China.

I never thought much about what it meant for me

or anyone until I learned

that I was going to be a mom.


[distant babies crying]

Our baby was born seven weeks early.

I was not prepared.

Right after he was born,

the nurses took him away from me.

The separation and fear for his health was traumatic.

12 days later, I was finally able to take him home

and hold him.

Becoming a mother felt like giving birth to my memories.

A rush of images from my early life came back to me.

I thought of my own parents and the name they gave me.

They chose the name Nanfu before I was born.

"Nan" means "man," and "fu" means "pillar."

They hoped for a boy who would grow up

to be the pillar of the family.

When I was born a girl, they named me Nanfu anyway,

hoping that I would grow up strong like a man.

I remembered the plaques the government hung

on all the front doors in my village every year,

signifying each family's commitment

to the Communist Party's values.

Each plaque was decorated with stars,

indicating how well a family performed,

including a star

for whether the family had no more than one child.

Our family always missed that star.

I remembered being sent to middle school in the city

because our village only had an elementary school.

Most of the city kids came from one-child families.

Whenever someone found out that I had a brother,

I felt embarrassed,

as if our family had done something wrong

by having a second child.

[firecrackers popping]

- [clears throat]

- I moved to the U.S.

six years before my son was born.

Bringing him back to my village for the first time

showed me how traumatic it was

just to become a parent in China.

[children chattering]

Visiting the village kindergarten

where my mom teaches,

I remembered that we had textbooks

about the one-child policy since we were kids.

I used to think that I knew everything there was to know

about the one-child policy.

But now I wondered if the thoughts I had

were really my own or if they were simply learned.

I asked my neighbor to take me

to see the former head of my village,

who was in charge when the one-child policy began.

He was one of the people my grandpa argued with

about sterilizing my mom.

- [speaking native language]

[Nanfu laughs]

[discordant music playing]

- [speaking native language]

- [playing cymbals, singing in native language]

[singing in native language]

- Men like Liu Xianwen worked all over China

to promote the one-child policy.

Since before I could even speak,

I was surrounded by messages praising the policy.

There was TV...

Theatrical performances...

And even children's songs.

And just like everyone else, I joined in the choir.

This was me performing propaganda songs.

We all had the same makeup, the same dresses,

and the same mentality.

As I was leaving, I asked my neighbor who went with me

if he could take me to meet some women

who were affected by the policy.

- That night I decided it was best

to speak to someone I know.

So I went to see the local midwife

who delivered all the babies in the village,

including myself.

She was happy to see me.

She showed me photos of my grandma,

who used to be in the same propaganda band with her.

[dramatic music]

On the wall,

there was a long list of infertility disorders.

Next to it were flags people sent to thank her

for helping them have babies.

[Nanfu gasps]

Aw... [speaking native language]

My village is one of many thousands across the country,

and every village had midwives and family-planning workers.

Each year the government would punish or reward them,

depending on how many babies were born in their territory.

[trumpet fanfare playing]

[sweeping music playing


She was standing right behind Wen Jiabao,

the country's premier at the time.

Received like a national hero,

Jiang's story was told again and again by the state TV.

- [chuckles]

[dramatic music]

- "We are fighting a population war,"

was a common slogan

used by the government during the one-child policy.

China started a war against population growth,

but it became a real war against its own people.

[soft music]

[pump squeaking, water rushing]

- [sighs]

- My grandpa is 83.

He lived through wars, famines, and revolutions.

My own parents weren't much better off.

My father died of a brain hemorrhage when he was 33.

And his short life was more about survival

than finding fulfillment.

[dramatic music]

None of my family questioned the policy

or how it was implemented.

The government used music and TV

to show people a better life

that they could imagine themselves living

as long as they followed the rules.

[woman singing in native language]

I wish I could say something to my mom.

Like most people in China,

she believes the policy was necessary

for China's survival...

but I wondered if people like her really thought

it was worth the sacrifices each family made.

- Uh, now...

[grunts softly]

- Coming back here, I realize

that I don't even have a photo of my grandpa and me,

as he only ever took photos with his two grandsons.

When my mom was born, her parents named her Zaodi,

which means "bringing a younger brother soon."

She later helped her younger brother

abandon his daughter in the market

so he could try again for a son.

[indistinct chatter]

[baby fussing softly]

I wish I could say that my uncle

was the only one in our family

who felt he had to abandon a child.

[dramatic music]

The large number of abandoned babies

created opportunities for human traffickers

all over China.

In my village, we called them matchmakers

because they took unwanted babies

and found homes for them.

Talking with my aunt about matchmakers

triggered a memory I had

of a national news story from a decade ago

where an entire family was convicted

of selling babies to orphanages.

At the time, it seemed cruel and evil

that someone could sell babies like that,

but now I wondered

if the government's version of their crime

was true at all.

I tracked down the ex-trafficker Duan Yueneng

in Shenzhen.

Duan spent four years in prison

but now works as a security guard.

The day I was there, he was on his break,

scavenging furniture from a company

that was going out of business.

[door closes]

- The number 10,000 sounded high to me,

but I have no way to verify it.

I asked him to show me exactly how he did it.

[woman speaking native language on PA]

He used to take a train almost every day

between Guangdong Province, where he would find babies,

and Hunan Province,

where he would sell the babies to the orphanages.

1992 was the year that China began

its international adoption program,

allowing foreigners to adopt Chinese orphans.

The demand from orphanages grew so fast

that Duan's family had to find help.

Until my aunt told me the story

about her abandoned daughter,

I never knew that I had a cousin.

Now I was filled with questions.

Where could she be?

And where are the children, the ones sold to orphanages?

One family in America

has been trying to answer these questions for 18 years.

- There are entries showing that these kids

either came from the Duan family, from Wuzhuan,

or from, you know, outside family planning,

and that's just--

it's astounding that of the hundreds of kids

that this orphanage adopted internationally,

less than a handful of them

actually seem to have been legitimately found.

The rest werebrought in by people.

- I know.

- Longlan and her husband, Brian,

co-founded Research China,

a paid service that tries to connect adopted children

with their birth families in China.

Their search started with their own children.

Why adopting from China was so popular

among international families?

- The main thing is that the China program,

from the beginning, was extremely predictable.

You knew practically down to the penny

how much money you were gonna need to bring to China.

You knew where you were gonna be on every day.

You knew what forms you were gonna sign.

Everything was 100% orchestrated.

- How much was the average total cost to adopt from China?

- Generally between, say,

$10,000 at the very least

to $20,000 to $25,000.

So we did research, submitted our dossier,

and adopted Meikina in 1998, April 4th.

- [babbles]

- And it was,

in every sense of the word, a life-changing experience.

And we said, "Boy, we need to go on that ride again."

[soft music]

Now look at the camera.Two, three, one--

- Come on. - One, two...

- For most of Meikina's life,

they thought they knew exactly how she came to them.

- I'd actually started researching in China

in about 2000 and interviewed this finder.

And the detail and the experience

that she painted for me

struck me as completely legitimate.

For ten years, I was convinced

that that story was accurate,

and then, finally, Lan said, you know, that,

"Maybe we should go back,

and I should meet this finder and talk to her myself."

So she went back, found the woman I had interviewed,

and the woman kind of got a little bit nervous,

and she said, "Have you spoken to the orphanage?

"I actually had nothing to do with your daughter's finding.

"Our names were just put on the paperwork

"for the adoption.

We didn't find your daughter."

And when Lan called me and told me that, I was like,

"Wow. That is amazing."

Because now I recognized

that the orphanage had prepped the finder

before I'd even gotten there in 2000 and said, you know,

"Give him a good story. Make something up.

Just make him feel good."

And that's what happens in the majority of cases

when Western families go to China,

and they give the same story over and over and over again.

- I can't find that one.

- Talking with Longlan, I realized

I was following a path she had already discovered.

She had reached out to Duan and his family

many years before I did.

She has a copy of all the records

from Duan's trial.

She also interviewed Duan's mom,

who passed away several years ago.

She was the first person in the family

who sold babies to orphanages.

- And so the orphanage will hire--

not officially hire but will create a recruiting network

of doctors, midwives,

foster families, whatever, you know?

Anybody that can locate

and bring children into the orphanage.

When those children come into the orphanage,

then, of course, they need to--

the orphanage then needs to fabricate their information,

say, "Oh, yeah, let's pick...

the third middle school today," you know?

And they'll tell the adoptive family,

"Your child was found at the third middle school,"

when, in fact, they were never actually found at all.

So what the orphanages will do is they'll make an agreement

with their local police station and say,

"Okay, we're gonna bring over these finding reports,

and we need you to stamp it and sign it,

"and we'll pay you 50 Yuan or whatever

for each one that we do."

The finding ads are published in newspapers

that nobody ever reads, you know?

Basically, they're just a photo

with some information about the child,

their gender, their health status,

where they were supposedly found,

how old, their birthdates, and so on.

And then at the bottom of the finding ad, it says,

"Birth family has 60 days to retrieve the child,

or the child will be submitted for adoption."

[dramatic music]

- Looking at the finding ads in the newspapers,

I wondered about each baby's story.

If they weren't orphans,

were they given to matchmakers like my own cousin?

I found many sets of twins.

Most of them probably were separated.

And they don't even know that they have a twin

somewhere in the world.

- When you take that information

from all the children and you collate it together,

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 can see all-- orphanage gates,

civil affairs, orphanage, civil affairs, orphanage,

and it's clear that, you know,

they're making up the information

because they're using the same locations

over and over and over again.

- It used to be that family planning would come in

if you had an over-quota child,

and they'd bash down your house,

or they'd take a pig or, you know, do something.

Once the orphanage joined the international adoption program,

that changed.

And so now they saw kind of a win-win situation going,

where the family planning would go in

and take the child that wasn't registered,

turn it into the orphanage.

The orphanage would reward the family-planning officials

and then adopt that child internationally.

- I lived in China until I was 26,

but I'd never heard that government officials

were confiscating babies during the one-child policy.

I was shocked when Brian said the story

was uncovered years ago

when I was still living in China.

This was me back then.

Throughout my life, I was taught to believe

the love of my country was equal

to love of the government and the Party.

Now when I look back at this time in my life,

I'm amazed at my ignorance.

- The Chinese government exerted a lot of influence

to suppress the story--

threatened the newspaper, threatened the reporter.

The reporter ended up having to leave China,

you know, because of that kind of stuff.

- I emailed the journalist, who is in exile in Hong Kong,

and asked him if he could meet me.

He agreed, but only if we meet in a hotel,

because he didn't want to reveal his address.

Pang had extensive evidence.

He and a colleague had taken cameras

to Hunan Province in 2010.

The government had targeted families in Longhui County,

one of the poorest places in all of China.

[dogs barking]

Growing up, I saw signs like this everywhere.

Then he showed me footage of Zeng Shuangjie.

He told me that Zeng had a twin sister

who was taken away from the family.

In Hong Kong,

Pang wrote a book titled "The Orphans of Shao."

He used the twin girl's picture on the cover.

It couldn't be published in China.

An English version was published

with the help of a U.S. nonprofit organization.

[woman speaking native language on PA]

Since Pang's report was published in 2011,

the situation of the families in Shaoyang

is basically the same.

There has been no accountability

for the people responsible.

[dog barking, goose honks]

[chickens clucking]

[flames whoosh]

[somber music]

- I told Lan the story about my aunt and my missing cousin.

She said she might be able to help.

After meeting with my aunt,

Lan kept traveling around China,

gathering DNA from families to test for matches

with children abroad.

One thing that struck me was that everyone we spoke to

said the same things about the policy.

As I heard the answer again and again:

"I had no choice."

I realized that you could ask anyone in any part of China

about how the one-child policy affected them,

and all of them would say the same thing.

I was so angry, even with my own family,

that there wasn't more to be said or done.

There was such a shared sense of helplessness.

It reminded me,

when every major life decision is made for you

for all your life,

it's hard to feel responsible for the consequences.

Longlan and Brian started testing the DNA samples

she brought back from China.

They didn't find my cousin,

but they did discover a match...

a girl in the United States

who is a DNA match to a family in China.

[mouse clicking]

- This is the list of all of the DNA that we've got.

All of it comes into GEDmatch Genesis database.

And that's a free database

that allows us then to compare our DNA

with all the DNA in the database.

You know, Lan was doing some work,

and I was just going through,

and I go through each of the matches

to see if there was any that were close matches,

and we got to one of the birth families,

and it matched to a girl.

And, of course, I immediately reached out to the adoptee,

sent her an email, and let her know

that, you know, if she wanted more information,

she could write us,

and then she wrote back and said,

"Thank you for reaching out to me.

"At this moment, I do not want information

"regarding my birth family.

You know, I'm not really interested at this time."

- Lan told me that it's actually very common

that adoptees do not want

to contact their birth families.

This also included the children

she located from Hunan Province

who were kidnapped and

sent to orphanages by the government.

- [sniffles]



- After leaving Utah,

I decided to take another trip to China with my son.

I wanted to follow up with the twin girl

whose sister is in America.

I brought the book written by the journalist

in Hong Kong.

While there was no DNA match for Zeng and her twin sister,

her story had already been made public.

An American journalist located her twin sister

in the United States.

[page turns]

- While the American family

did not want to be interviewed,

Zeng and her twin sister

connected through social media.

- Mm...


[both laugh]

- Many years ago,

I felt embarrassed for having a brother.

But now I feel lucky that I had someone to grow up with.

I want my son to have a sibling like I did,

but I want that decision to be my own.

I'm struck by the irony that I left a country

where the government forced women to abort,

and I moved to another country

where governments restrict abortions.

On the surface, this seemed like opposites,

but both are about taking away women's control

of their own bodies.

The one-child policy lasted for 35 years.

Now there aren't enough young people in China

to work and care for the elderly.

So China is introducing a new family-planning policy.

The signs painted all over my village have been changed.

Every trace of the one-child policy

is being erased.

[women singing in native language]

But the memory of what the policy really was

survives in the minds of people who lived it.

If these memories of the one-child policy fade away,

the only thing left will be propaganda.

[upbeat music playing]


announcer: Amazon Studios

is a proud distribution partner

of "One Child Nation" on PBS.



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