The Current

China's one-child policy was enforced through abortion and sterilization, says documentary director

Directors Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang took extraordinary risks to make the new documentary One Child Nation because they wanted to shine a light on the true impact of China's former one-child policy.

Chinese documentary directors say they were shocked by details they uncovered

Director Nanfu Wang as a young girl, with her mother and father. She grew up under China's one-child policy, and has co-directed a new documentary about how it was enforced. (Submitted by Hot Docs)

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As a young girl, film director Nanfu Wang remembers her mother going into labour with her second child — and her grandmother placing a basket outside the bedroom door.

"She announced if it's a girl … she's going to put the baby girl in the basket, and then take it out and abandon the baby on the streets," said Wang, who grew up in a small farming village in Jiangxi province, China.

"Luckily my mom gave birth to a boy, so instead of taking the baby to the streets, they celebrated with firecrackers."

Her grandmother's actions were prompted by China's one-child policy, enacted in 1979 as a form of population growth. Intended to stop a repeat of the starvation of previous decades, the policy eventually resulted in a large gender imbalance, due to a traditional preference for sons, and the abandonment of baby girls. For decades, the policy was enforced through fines, economic incentives and propaganda. It was replaced with a two-child policy in 2015.

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Wang got her brother because of an allowance in the policy. Because she was a girl, officials let her family pay a fine and then wait five years to try for another baby, this time hoping for a boy.

She told The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti that was why the stakes were so high for her grandmother, and why she would consider abandoning a girl in the hopes of being allowed to try again.

"I always think I was grateful that I was the first one," Wang said. "If I were the second one, I don't know what would have happened to me."

The policy is the subject of One Child Nation, a new documentary that Wang has co-directed with Jialing Zhang.

Filmmakers Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang have co-directed One Child Nation, a documentary about the far eastern country's controversial policy. (Submitted by Hot Docs)

Even though Wang and Zhang were born and grew up in China, they said they were shocked to learn of the violence with which the policy was enforced.

Wang said that women who already had children were sometimes forced to undergo abortions for subsequent pregnancies, administered by officials who felt they were performing their duty to uphold the policy. Sterilizations were performed in the same way.

"We thought we knew what the one-child policy meant … and we were wrong," she said.

Midwife performed thousands of abortions

Wang returned to her home village to make the film, where she met with the midwife, now 84 years old, who had delivered Wang herself.

"I asked her: 'Hey, do you remember how many babies you delivered throughout your career?'" Wang said.

"And she said: 'I don't have the number of deliveries, but I do remember I did 50,000 to 60,000 abortions, and I counted that because I felt guilty.'"

Wang told Tremonti that these forced abortions could happen late because women were trying to hide their pregnancies from officials.

"[The midwife] told me that sometimes a late-term baby would be born alive, and she would have to kill the baby after delivering it," Wang said.

"She told me how her hands would tremble when she did that."

Most people said I don't have a choice, this is my job, this is for the greater good ... they felt that they had no choice whether to allow a baby to be alive or dead.- Nanfu Wang

Wang's co-director Zhang said that the midwife now feels guilt about what happened, but at the time felt that she was performing her duty.

"She performed … five or six [abortions] a day at least, over 25 years, and nobody really forced her to do that," she said.

"But her primary identity is a loyal communist party member, and she [would] fulfil her duty before she [would] quit."

Wang said that outlook was common among many of the officials and people who live through the policy.

China's one-child policy was introduced in 1979. (Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters)

"Most people said I don't have a choice, this is my job, this is for the greater good, there was nothing we could do," she said.

"They felt that they had no choice whether to allow a baby to be alive or dead."

She argued that "when you live in China you were not encouraged to make your own life decisions … you were taught what to do."

"Over time one would lose the ability to think for themselves," she said.

Forced sterilizations, demolished homes

Wang said that after a woman had a child, sterilization was a common method to ensure the one-child policy was upheld. There was particular resistance to this in rural areas, where sons were desired to work on the farmland, and eventually inherit it.

If sterilization was refused, Wang said that women were sometimes forced. If they went into hiding she said officials would bulldoze homes and arrest family members until the women came forward.

In Wang's community, those sterilizations fell to the local midwife who she interviewed for the film. But Wang said that after decades of performing these procedures, the midwife couldn't do it any longer.

Newborn babies wait to be bathed at a hospital in east China's Shandong province, in January 2012. (Associated Press)

"Nowadays she exclusively treats infertility disorders," she said.

"She hoped by helping families having babies, she can counteract what she did in the past, and to basically atone her sin."

When Wang visited her, the walls of the midwife's home were adorned with pieces of paper expressing gratitude from people she has helped to conceive, each one showing a picture of a newborn baby.

At first, Wang found it hard to understand "how she could live in a space like that, and be reminded every day visually of what she had done in the past, and what she is suffering from."

"It was that moment I realized that she too is just like everybody, every woman she aborted. She was a victim as well."

Click 'listen' near the top of this page to hear the full conversation.

Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Julie Crysler.