Biweekly Binge: One Child Nation - The power of indoctrination
A fortnightly column on what’s good in the vast ocean of content in the streaming platforms around you, and this week, it's One Child Nation, streaming on Amazon Prime
In Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang's documentary (streaming on Amazon Prime) One Child Nation, artist Peng Wang talks about indoctrination. Nanfu asks, what is indoctrination exactly? He describes it as, "Collective interest above all else. Individuals submit to the collective. The Party is infallible." He goes on to explain how this indoctrination destroys a person's humanity, conscience, and individuality. After a point, it is not just toeing the line but the belief that the Party's order is always right. Peng's artistic interests were in trash and when researching under a bridge in China, he found bags of foetuses, wrapped in paper or cardboard and discarded with plastic and food. It was marked as "medical waste." The unimaginable, surreal, yet true events were made possible by the effects of China's one-child policy that was in effect from 1979-2015. What Peng describes in this passage of the film hits hard if you are living in 2019-20 India. The ruling party here is in the process of establishing a fascist regime, built thoroughly on image, propaganda, and the same indoctrination that the artist describes here. Peng collected and preserved these foetuses, he didn't want the gruesome implementation and aftermath of the one-child policy to disappear.
In One Child Nation, Nanfu takes her camera to document both internal and external realities. She interrogates people within her family, midwives who delivered her, and other artists and journalists who have been studying the policy for a long time, even living in exile as a result of their efforts. She learns that her own mother, their siblings, and cousins, supported the policy. "If it weren't for the policy, there'd be cannibalism in China," her mother says, Nanfu feeding her baby and choosing laughter over horror for its sake. The policy created a climate of tacit female infanticide in China because everybody wanted a son. Nanfu is named so because it is a portmanteau of "man" and "pillar". Her parents expected a boy and chose this name to mean "pillar of the family." They chose to stick to the name for the girl child. The film observes several instances where her brother is the preferred and most-loved child in the family to the extent that her grandfathers don't have pictures with her. Families that had daughters put the child in a basket and sent them away or midwives and doctors, working at the behest of the government, induced and performed abortions. Nanfu's narrative goes from the gruesome details of her own extended family abandoning a baby in the market only to find it dead with mosquito bites couple of days later to the interrogation of their psyche, of having performed such inhuman acts and living with themselves today.
A stylistic choice Nanfu employs is letting us in on the making of the documentary by reminding us of her presence in almost every conversation. At times we see her reflection in mirrors, camera in hand. When she is talking to someone, the conversation is filmed in such a way that her presence in the room is irrefutably felt. Her parents were able to have two children because they hail from a rural area where having two children was allowed if they are at least five years apart. Nanfu, and by extension the documentary, is always aware that her life could well have been cut short, either by traffickers sending her off to an orphanage or suffering the terrible fate of so many girl children born during the policy era — a foetus wrapped in paper bag and discarded like expired food. The documentary also sheds light on the grey area of human trafficking during that period — a whole family indulging in the "business" of sending abandoned babies to orphanages from where children were adopted around the world. In what conscience they acted, it is hard to say but they sure ended up on the better side of history for having saved lives.
The older population of China though has wholly fallen on the wrong side. One of the many side-effects of this policy is that the current young population in China has dwindled and the country is teeming with older people left without support and care. We often talk about the ills of burgeoning population in India, but, right now, India has the highest concentration of young people to take the country forward. China has introduced the two-child policy since 2015 and is using the same measures to get the message across as it did with the earlier program — propaganda, indoctrination and the Party's line above all. It must serve as a warning to the people of every budding fascist regime in the world that is prone to fall prey to this brand of relentless persuasion. The one-child policy is just one among several. It would do well for the youngest country to learn from history.