Review: 'One Child Nation' takes hard look at China's population control initiative

Documentary provides sobering look at how government policy affected a nation

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

They were following orders. 

That's the explanation heard time and again in the harrowing documentary "One Child Nation," which takes a difficult look at China's one-child-per-couple policy, enacted in 1979 as a means of population control. 

A still from "One Child Nation."

Those order followers forced abortions and sterilizations on countless women, dragging them from their homes and tying them up like pigs, according to stories collected by directors Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang.

Some 338 million births were prevented between the years of 1979 and 2015; one woman estimates she alone performed some 50,000 to 60,000 abortion and sterilization procedures on women.

Wang and Lynn go down the rabbit hole on the policy, talking to those affected by it, those who helped enact it and the government-sponsored propaganda that supported it. 

Songs, dance routines and public art attempted to put a positive public spin on the initiative, put in place because China was in the midst of what officials called a "population war."

Behind the scenes the picture was much more grim, and led to families being torn apart and a rise in human traffickers, who sold illegally born babies to orphanages for international adoptions. 

Wang, herself born under the one-child policy, uses her personal story of recently becoming a mother as a way to burrow into the policy and its effects on her and her family. She and Zhang broaden their scope by talking to artists, journalists, midwives and more about what the initiative meant for them and their country in this thoughtful and sobering dissection of the human toll of government rule. 

'One Child Nation'


Rated R: for some disturbing content/images, and brief language

Running time: 89 minutes