Ancient Chinese Legalist philosopher Han Fei once told a story about a man who was farming and witnessed a rabbit run into a tree stump and die. From that day forward, he sat staring at the tree stump, waiting for more suicidal rabbits to appear and provide him easy food.
The farmer became the laughingstock of his neighbors. Han Fei argued that the statesman who looks to the past for guidance is exactly like this idiotic farmer.
In the spirit of the Legalist wholesale rejection of historical wisdom, the Chinese Communist Party has engaged in massive projects of social engineering without precedent. For example, Mao forced upon peasants the ingenious idea of sowing seeds up to ten times the normal density, supposing that the Marxian idea of class solidarity applied to the science of seeding. Mao’s idiotic farming techniques caused a mass failure of crops that contributed to the greatest famine in history.
The party also instituted the One Child Policy in 1979. It adopted an essentially Malthusian theory that overpopulation and mass starvation was imminent—a theory that had been resurrected and popularized in the West in the late ‘60s and ‘70s by biologist and false prophet Paul Ehrlich.
Only in the past few years has the party been forced by the reality of impending demographic doom to relax to a two-child policy. Those who grew up in that era are now coming to terms with the One Child Policy. In “One Child Nation,” a documentary short-listed, but just snubbed by the Oscars, we get a devastating reckoning and account of its murderous and destructive effects.
Lessons on Corruption and Perversion
Directed and narrated by Nanfu Wang, “One Child Nation” is at once a highly personal memoir and account of the One Child Policy. The policy corrupted local governmental authority and perverted the relations between neighbors.
One local official who carried out forced sterilization and abortion recalls demolishing the homes of resisters, which “might be cruel…But policy is policy…What could we do?” When propaganda and bulldozers failed, and pregnant women fled, party officials hunted them down, tied up the victims, and dragged them to abortions “like pigs.”
It thus corrupted the medical profession. One midwife interviewed estimates that she carried out 50-60,000 forced sterilizations and abortions. In gruesome detail, the film recounts how late-term abortion of babies at eight and nine months who “were still alive” was normal.
The policy corrupted the family by perverting motherhood into something to be feared, shunned, and shamed. Those forced to get abortions would “cry, curse, fight, go insane”—doubtless an effective psychological deterrent against pregnancy. It perverted fathers into shunning daughters to the point where they would expose their own infant girls. And it has left the elderly without family networks to care for them.
The policy perverted normal fraternal and sororal relations by preventing parents from giving their children the gift of a sibling. It forced birth parents to abandon or give up their “surplus” children to a corrupt system of party confiscation and trafficking of babies for overseas adoption and profit. One girl, Shuangjie Zeng, whose twin sister was kidnapped and trafficked by party officials, muses through sobs what life would be like to grow up with her sister.
Toward the end of the film, Nanfu says she is struck by the irony that she left a country where women were forced to abort for a country where governments restrict abortions. She says One Child and prolife policies only superficially contrast—at root they are both the same violations of bodily autonomy.
Yet, Nanfu’s opinion notwithstanding, “One Child Nation’s” central message is not a celebration of autonomy. Rather, it is an exposé of evils of antinatalism.
‘One Child Nation’s’ Pronatal Message
To see why forced abortion and abortion restrictions are not the same, consider that antinatal and pronatal policies do not concern matters of intrinsically morally indifferent human action, which depending on circumstances could in principle be subject to regulation for the common good.
Suppose that it became faddish among the Chinese people to grow out their fingernails very long, in a throwback to the practices of the nobility in the Ming and Qing dynasties. Suppose further that manual productivity and therefore GDP began to decline as a result, and the Chinese government enacted a policy forcing people to keep fingernails trimmed to one centimeter.
Such a One Centimeter Policy would be an invasion of bodily autonomy and a restriction of choice. But it would not generate the objective crisis of conscience that forced sterilization and abortion did. This is because a fingernail is merely a part of a human body.
While fingernail length is subject to various morally licit determinations, a policy requiring citizens to cut back overgrown nails to one centimeter does not involve any intrinsic evil, as opposed to (say) maiming a properly functioning organ could, since the functioning of the integumentary system is compatible with a range of fingernail lengths.
Suppose further that various states in America enacted modest pro-fingernail policies like cutting public funding to nail-cutting salons or banning trimming past the third centimeter. That would be a case of irony for the Chinese emigrant to America because, at root, pro- and anti-nail policies would both restrict bodily autonomy in morally indifferent matters, which in liberal democracies are more often left to individual choice.
Why Do Their Hearts Ache If These Weren’t Children?
The evil of the One Child Policy was not merely that it took away choice. Either the fetus is objectively endowed with intrinsic dignity and worth or it is not. If the latter, then its disposal for the sake of a real or imagined population crisis is on par with the disposal of overgrown fingernails for the sake of a real or imagined productivity crisis.
Then all of families’ heartache is rationally groundless because they did not really lose daughters and sisters—they lost entities more biologically and metaphysically akin to abnormal growths. One might debate with the Chinese government over how malignant these tumors were, but the latter hypothesis suggests they would be tumors nonetheless.
On the contrary, the message of “One Child Nation” is that the feelings of anger over the One Child Policy are justified because of what interviewee Peng Wang calls the “respect every life deserves.” Wang gathered discarded fetuses and infants from landfills to preserve them so people would never forget the crimes against life the party had committed, commenting that “The most tragic thing for a nation is to have no memory.”
Human Value Doesn’t Depend on Parents’ Choice
Neither can one say there is no objective truth about the value of the fetus, but only the subjective truth of the autonomously choosing mother. Suppose Shuangjie Zeng and her sister were actually conjoined twins from birth and could not be safely separated because they had all of their own organs, except for their reproductive organs. Imagine that they got pregnant and that Shuangjie sincerely believed that personhood doesn’t come until after birth, and her sister sincerely believed in personhood from the moment of conception.
Both could equally claim that it is their body and therefore their autonomous choice determines the value of the fetus. The subjectivist would therefore be committed to holding that the fetus in such a case is and is not a person at the same time and in the same respect. But that is manifestly absurd.
The film provides absolutely no support for the idea that a godlike autonomous will is sufficient to radically confer value on indifferent fetal matter. No evidence is provided that such a choice makes any difference as to what kind of thing and unborn entity is: a genetically and functionally distinct organism of the species homo sapiens.
Even interviewees who defend the policy admit it involved mass killing of human beings. Everyone seems to know that it is scientifically and metaphysically impossible for the will to change what an unborn child is; it can only decide if it continues to be.
Deep down, we really know this, as well. Wang’s question for his fellow Chinese is thus also a question for Westerners with permissive abortion regimes: “How could we do this…and why?”
As Chen Guangcheng has argued, “a government that cannot face its own history is a government without a future.” In the end, “One Child Nation” is a clarion call to the Chinese not only to look at and learn from the disastrous antinatalist policies of the past, but to recall and recover the older Confucian family values that rejected collectivism, and prized the dignity and integrity of the family as the foundation of a benevolent and orderly society.