Early on in Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang’s new documentary, One Child Nation, an 84-year-old midwife is asked how many babies she has delivered throughout her career. She brushes the question aside and instead spills out a startling admission. “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,” she says.
The scene that follows is astonishing, not only for plainly illustrating the horror and scale of the film’s subject—the far-reaching consequences of China’s one-child policy—but also for the exceptional nature of the confession. “I counted this out of guilt, because I aborted and killed babies,” the midwife, Huaru Yuan, continues. “Many I induced alive and killed. My hands trembled doing it.” Since retiring, Yuan has dedicated her life to treating families struggling with infertility, as a kind of spiritual penance. But retribution will one day come for her, she says, her voice bereft of self-pity.