The 21-day nationwide lockdown has put some time in my hands, and I am using it to catch up on the many movies and series I never got around to watch. One of them is “One Child Nation”, a documentary on China’s one-child policy, directed by Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang, and released in November 2019 on Amazon Prime. 

The topic of the documentary holds a strong personal appeal for me: my Chinese friends and almost all my Chinese classmates at the University of Hong Kong were born when the one-child policy was at its strictest. 

Despite being the same age, belonging to similar economic strata, and hailing from over-populated, developing nations with old and distinct non-Western cultures, there lies an indescribable divide between them on one side and me and fellow young Indians on the other. 

Time and again, I have wondered if the political systems, the histories, the rates of economic growth, or even the cuisines or climate, are the reason. “One Child Nation” has added the one-child policy, and indeed, China’s take on the concept of ‘policy’, to the list.

When it comes to being familiar with China, I have been more fortunate than most of my fellow Indians. I have visited China twice, and stayed and studied with the Chinese, broken bread with them, partied and built friendships with them and worked with them. 

My Chinese connections are some of the brightest, warmest, and most honest and hardworking people in my circles, yet every interaction I’ve had with them has left me with an unshakeable feeling that something’s different.

Frank and open discussions of one’s perceptions (especially those not positive) of other countries and people are a natural by-product of human nature and globalisation, however, in today’s world, they are risky. They can get one labelled as racist or xenophobic very quickly, given the global hyper-sensitivity around these topics. 

As I am neither an expert nor an authority on China and the Chinese, I have found it best to steer clear of such topics and focus on their positives, which are indeed many, instead. Yet, with the coronavirus pandemic raging across the world, an older, hitherto largely unaddressed conflict has resurfaced: the conflict of managing one’s perceptions of China.

“One Child Nation” has been reviewed enough; most reviews I read appreciate the candidness, and the rather matter-of-fact depiction of the various (if not all) facets of the one-child policy. Yet, the more I read them, the more it seems that like me, they too are struggling to comprehend yet another thing characterising the China we think we know. 

One run of the documentary, and the struggle seems perfectly reasonable. Inter alia, the documentary captures the Chinese attitude towards the policy and particularly a girl child compellingly; as an Indian, I am well-versed with it. However, coming from a country which, despite being populous, celebrates its joint families and children, I am appalled at the severity of the one-child policy. 

While population control propaganda through art, song and dance is fine (and even justified), I cannot digest the extremity to which both, the Chinese government and the Chinese people drive the execution of the policy. 

The documentary tells stories of hundreds of pregnant women stripped of their rights to their bodies and dragged into abortions, of babies abandoned in markets or by the roadside either to die or to be picked and sold by human traffickers to orphanages, of government officials receiving medals for enforcing the one-child policy, and of broken, helpless families reiterating they had ‘no choice’. 

China’s one-child ‘policy’ is, in fact, a draconian law, reducing humans to mere objects; the surplus is either exported and profited from, or, as the documentary shows of unborn foetuses, discarded as ‘medical waste’. 

One can only imagine the trauma caused by the brutal execution of the one-child policy to young mothers, families, and surviving children, and the resultant impacts on their personalities and behaviours. I have seen extreme levels of helicopter parenting while at Hong Kong, and at least two Chinese students at the university have categorically told me that children, ultimately, ‘belong to the state’. 

The backdrop against which I watch this documentary is a compelling addition to these apprehensions. Various media reports such as this one confirm that had China behaved responsibly – i.e.  informed the world and acted in time, the coronavirus pandemic could have been better controlled, even averted. Worse, after letting the virus spread, China has the audacity to cash it in through ‘generously’ exporting poor quality testing kits to Spain, which is devastated by the second highest number of coronavirus deaths in the world.

As so-called liberals across the world scramble to defend China against people who are essentially asking China to own up, I find myself thinking: a country capable of discarding its own young, yet unborn, as ‘medical waste’ just because it is a second child is unlikely to feel responsible – much less guilty – about the deaths it has allowed to occur across the world. 

Europe’s response to the pandemic might be a fumbling one, the USA might or might not have been at the genesis of it, and unverified conspiracy theories might or might not make sense, but the fact remains that the pandemic has its origin in China, and the Chinese government should have put life and responsibility over its reputation.

The battle at hand at this moment is controlling the pandemic, and it supersedes making China take responsibility. Also, given China’s economic might and the reality that one can usually get away with anything if they have money, it is going to take a massive effort to break down the narrative currying in China’s favour. 

Yet, as millions of us sit at home with our jobs, businesses and lives at stake, it is hard not to wonder about the Chinese and the choices they make as a nation. The coronavirus pandemic will eventually be stemmed, but it will take longer to make sense of China. As the world learns more of it, it is evident that the struggle isn’t going away soon.

(This post was first published here on The Tilak Chronicle.)

Gauri Noolkar-Oak

Gauri Noolkar-Oak is a transboundary water conflicts researcher and has studied river basins in the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and South Asia. She is also the Founder of Lokmaanya.


The views and opinions expressed in the above article belong to the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official opinion, policy or position of Lokmaanya.


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