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The new documentary One Child Nation explores the effects of China’s infamous “one-child policy” from 1980 to 2015. In the film, co-director Nanfu Wang returns to her home village to reflect on growing up while the policy was in place, though ignorant of its implications. Only when she herself became pregnant, as an adult living in the United States, did her thoughts turn to the bitter harvest of the one-child years in her home country. While interviewing an elderly midwife, she asks how many babies the woman delivered. “I really don’t know how many I delivered. What I do know is that I’ve done a total of between 50,000 to 60,000 sterilizations and abortions.”
I haven’t seen One Child Nation, only trailers and clips. The tone of these fragments, and of online reviews and features, is undeniably somber. The story of Wang’s own uncle, who left a second daughter in the market hoping someone would take her, is emblematic: The baby died after two days. Other families sold their “surplus” infants to orphanages that in turn trafficked the babies to the United States (remember all those Chinese adoptions from the ’90s?). “In those days,” the midwife recalls, “women were abducted by government officials, tied up, and dragged to us like pigs.”
Ironically, Nanfu Wang and most reviewers draw the wrong conclusion. After lamenting the death of thousands of babies, mostly girls, they see the same thing happening here in reverse. Says Wang, “I left a country where the government forced women to abort, and I moved to another country where governments restrict abortions.” (Restrictions? In her home state of New Jersey?) According to the accepted view, the central issue is government attitudes toward women, not toward human life itself.
But this is not a column about abortion, or about China. It’s about policy.
In the film, when asked about their regrets, many of the interview subjects respond with a shrug. “Policy is policy,” says an old village official. “What could we do?”
Policy, determined by a handful of top-level party members, ruled that China’s food problems were due to overpopulation. Policy ruled that the solution was coercive population control. Now, faced with severe demographic imbalances, policy is advocating two-child families. In the future, what’s to stop policy from requiring couples to produce two children each, by natural means, purchase, or surrogacy?
During the second round of Democratic presidential debates on July 30, New Age guru Marianne Williamson raised eyebrows with her reference to “dark psychic forces” hovering over the White House. Her brand of spiritual politics may have knocked her out of the running, but the first part of her statement, calling out the “wonkiness” (i.e., policy solutions) of the other candidates, sounds weirdly true. Policy has become the end-all of politics. Bad policy caused the current mess, however we define the messiness; good policy will fix it. That’s why candidates are always talking about “my plan” to reform healthcare, heal the environment, or improve education. Marianne Williamson was wrong to trace the bigger problems to one source only, but right that wonkiness won’t solve them.
Policy has become the end-all of politics. Bad policy caused the current mess, however we define the messiness; good policy will fix it.
Policy matters, of course, but politicians exaggerate its importance. Policy should come at the end of the discussion. It’s how elected representatives (and their unelected staffs and agencies) determine the means of solving a problem. The “how” shouldn’t precede or dictate to the “what” and the “why.” In China, the stated reason for one child was potential starvation, and the stated cause was overpopulation (rather than the predictable failures of a Communist system). The policy sprang from a totalitarian framework, not thoughtful consideration of two doubtful premises.
In the United States, one party or the other will roll out a policy “solution” with great fanfare, but with little discussion of the causes of a problem or even what the real problem is. Policy is touted as savior before we’ve agreed on what needs to be saved: Incomes, or values? Choice, or life? Jobs, or purpose? Policy can’t answer these questions, and by itself won’t solve a single problem. We should keep that in mind in 2020.