ELDERLY PEOPLE IN CHINA
Respect for elders is often the basis for the way society is organized and has been at the foundation of Chinese culture and morality for thousands of years. Older people are respected for their wisdom and most important decisions have traditionally not been made without consulting them. Confucian filial piety encourages the younger generation to follow the teachings of elders and for elders to teach the young their duties and manners.
The elderly enjoy high status. Respect has traditionally been regarded as something earned with age. An emphasis on youth isn't as strong as it is in the West. Respect for the elderly is manifested through the custom of allowing the elderly people to go first, giving up seats to them on buses and generally deferring to them, helping them out and respecting their opinions and advise.
Old people are arguably among the happiest people in China. You can often find them singing and dancing in the parks or hanging out and joking around on the streets with their friends. Their cheerfulness appears to come from three sources: Confucianism, which teaches respect to one's elders; having a network of good friends; and the fact that older people, after a life of working hard, finally get a chance to kick back and relax and have their children take care of them.
Good Websites and Sources: People’s Daily article peopledaily.com ; China Daily article chinadaily.com ; China.org article china.org.cn ; Links in this Website: POPULATION IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; FAMILIES, MEN AND YOUNG ADULTS Factsanddetails.com/China ;
Respect for Older People in China
Many codes of behavior revolve around young people showing respect to older people. Younger people are expected to defer to older people, let them speak first, sit down after them and not contradict them. Sometime when an older person enters a room, everyone stands. People are often introduced from oldest to youngest. Sometimes people go out their way to open doors for older people and not cross their legs in front of them.
When offering a book or paper to someone older than you, you should show respect by using two hands to present the object. On a crowded subway or bus, you should give up your seat to an elderly person.
Sometimes a comment based on age meant to be complimentary can turn out to be an insult. The New York Times described a businessmen who was meeting with some high-ranking government officials and told one them he was “probably too young to remember.” The comment was intended to be a compliment:—that the official looked young for his age—but it was taken as insult—that the officials was not old enough to be treated with respect.
Respect for elders is best expressed during the "elder’s first" rite, the central ritual of the Chinese New Year, in which family members kneel and bow on the ground to everyone older than them: first grandparents, then parents, siblings and relatives, even elderly neighbors. In the old days a son was expected to honor his deceased father by occupying a hut by his grave and abstaining from meat, wine and sex for 25 months.
Chinese Girl Attempts to Save Her Father by Committing Suicide
In early 2009, China became absorbed in the fate of a 14-year-old Nanjing girl who tried to kill herself so she could donate her liver to her dying father. The story of Chen Jin, who lay in critical condition for almost two weeks after attempting to sacrifice herself for her parent, has touched hearts across the country. Donations have flooded in to pay the family's huge medical bills and well-wishers have even offered to give the father their own livers. [Source: Tania Branigan, The Guardian, February 6, 2009]
“She loves her dad more than herself,’ said the teenager's mother, who said her husband had been diagnosed with liver cancer in December and told that he had only three months to live. The couple decided to keep the news from their daughter for as long as possible. But after Jin came across a medical letter last month explaining the extent of her father's condition she waited until her mother was at the hospital and then attempted to kill herself. “ [Ibid]
It was only around 10 hours later, when her mother returned home and found the house locked and bolted, that she realized something was wrong. She then forced her way in through a window. ‘I saw my daughter lying quite still, as if she were dead, with two empty bottles of pills beside her bed and a suicide note,’ Cui Lan, 43, told Nanjing's Modern Express newspaper. The note read: ‘Mum, I am sorry that I could not be with you any more. Please give my liver to my father after I die.” [Ibid]
Jin was rushed to hospital where doctors pumped her stomach twice and gave her a blood transfusion. For days her distraught mother tried to hide the truth from her husband, telling him that their daughter could not visit him because she was slightly unwell, or busy visiting relatives. In fact, she was lying meters away in the intensive care unit of the same hospital. “ [Ibid]
Five days after admission, Jin finally emerged from her coma and was even able to write a brief note to her parents, telling her father she would come to visit him. But only two days later she stopped breathing ? and did so again a day later. Doctors became increasingly anxious as she remained in a critical condition. It was only today, 11 days after her suicide attempt, that they declared her out of danger. “ [Ibid]
The family have had to pay hundreds of thousands of yuan to treat father and daughter, on an income of only around 1,000 yuan (£100) a month. But Cui said today that well-wishers had given so much that all their bills had been covered and she would donate any excess to other needy families. Modern Express said many people had also rung the paper to offer to donate their organs....But Wang Weidong, the doctor treating the father, said a liver transplant could not save him because the cancer had already spread. “ [Ibid]
Graying of China
Another consequence of a low birth rate and one-child policy is an increasingly older population. China’s elderly population is growing rapidly while the number of young adults is shrinking, a huge demographic shift that has been building for decades. While the elderly still make up a relatively small share of China’s population compared with some Western nations, demographers predict that the proportion of elderly will nearly double from 2008 to 2025. By 2050, they say, one in four Chinese will be 65 or older.
The 2010 census shows that people over 60 years of age account for 13.26 percent of the populace, compared to 10.33 percent in 2000. By 2040, this figure is projected to spike to a stunning 28 percent. A 2010 study by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) forecast that by 2030, the proportion of the population that is over 65 will exceed even that of Japan, which has the grayest population in Asia. "By 2050, Chinese society will enter into a phase of severe agedness," the CASS said. [Source: Willy Lam, China Brief, Jamestown Foundation, May 6, 2011]
A major theme of the 12th Five-Year Plan on Economic and Social Development released in March 2011 was boosting social-welfare benefits, including those for senior citizens. Yet, it is doubtful whether adequate resources can be provided particularly for old rural residents, who traditionally rely on their children and grandchildren to take care of post-retirement needs. [Ibid]
China is quickly fulfilling the oft-repeated adage that "China is becoming old before it becomes rich." China’s demographic dividend—a reference to speedy economic expansion due to an increase of the proportion of Chinese who are working—is forecast by official economists to decline sharply from around 2013. And by 2039, less than two Chinese taxpayers may have to look after one retiree.”
As of 2005 about 143 million people (more than 10 percent of the population) were over 60. This is more than population of all but about ten countries. The rate is expected to increase at a rate of 100 million a decade. By 2050, there are expected to be 438 million elderly, or one out of four Chinese, compared with one out of ten in 1980. By 2020 the number of people between 20 and 24 is expected to be half of the 124 million in 2010. During the same time period the number of people over 60 is expected to jump from 12 percent of the population—167 million people—to 17 percent. By 2050 China will have more than 100 million over 80.
In Shanghai, people over 60 already make 21.6 percent of the population and are expected to make up 34 percent in 2020. Similar trend are occurring across the country, especially in urban areas where the working-age population is expect to peak in about 2015.
Nicholas Eberstad wrote in Far Eastern Economic Review, “According to the UNPD's projections, China's 65-plus age group currently numbers around 110 million. Over the coming generation, this group is set to rise to 280 million—growing at a pace of almost 3.8 percent per annum. By 2035, nearly one in five Chinese will be 65 or older, constituting a staggering 280 million senior citizens. The aging situation is likely to be even more acute in the Chinese countryside due to the ongoing migration of younger, rural-born workers to towns and cities. According to the projections of a team of demographers led by Professor Zeng Yi of Peking University, China's rural areas are probably already grayer than its cities—and the difference will grow starker every year. Prof. Zeng's team projects that by 2035 over one in four rural residents would be 65 or older.” [Source: Nicholas Eberstad, Far Eastern Economic Review, December 2009. Eberstadt holds the Henry Wendt Chair in political economy at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., and is senior adviser to the National Bureau of Asian Research]
Consequences of Graying Population
An aging population means that relatively small group of young people has to economically support a large number of elderly people. Health care and pension costs will soar as elderly people make up a larger portion of the population. There will be a labor shortage as the demands by the elderly exceed the ability to young people to meet them. The ratio of working people to retirees is dropping quickly. Immigrant labor will be needed to make up the shortfall.
China is the first nation to have to cope with a population that is getting older before it becomes rich. The elderly population is expected to mushroom before the economy and society have the capability to deal with the problem. Already, China is racking up health care and pension costs it can not afford as people born in the 1950s and 60s begin retiring. By 2035 and 2040 the peak of the aging problem China will face a social security deficient of $128 billion.
Nicholas Eberstad wrote in Far Eastern Economic Review, ‘What are the implications of this gray population explosion? For benchmarks, we might consider Japan, which ranks as the world's most aged society. In Japan today, the 65-plus proportion of the country's total population is just over 22 percent. In other words, rural China will be substantially more elderly than any population known to date within a generation.’[Source: Nicholas Eberstad, Far Eastern Economic Review, December 2009. Eberstadt holds the Henry Wendt Chair in political economy at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., and is senior adviser to the National Bureau of Asian Research]
Despite three decades of dizzying economic growth, rural China remains terribly poor. Average income levels in the Chinese countryside are reportedly less than one third as high as that of Chinese cities. Japan's per capita income level today is maybe 15 or 20 times higher than in rural China. One need not be a Sino-pessimist to suggest that Chinese society will have to cope with its coming age burden on vastly lower income levels than Japan or today's graying Western societies. “ [Ibid]
Who will care for this looming wave of retirees? Certainly it will not be the country's existing pension system. That irregular and arbitrary patchwork construct consists mainly of special arrangements for employees of certain municipalities and state enterprises, covering only a fraction of the country's workforce. Yet even these existing programs are manifestly unsound from an actuarial standpoint. Whereas the net present value of the U.S. social security system's unfunded liabilities are equivalent to America's total output for about one third of a year, the estimated liabilities of China's system are in excess of 100 percent of GDP. The existing social security system is doomed to collapse under its own weight. “ [Ibid]
The traditional Chinese social security system has in fact always been the family, with family members looking after their elderly in countryside and city alike. But with the collapse of Chinese fertility below replacement levels in the 1990s, the Chinese family has become a much frailer support system. In Confucian societies, the first line of support has always been the son. In the 1990s, practically every Chinese woman approaching retirement age had at least one son to turn to: in that time, all but 8 percent of Chinese women who were reaching the age of 60 had given birth to at least one male child. By 2025 the corresponding proportion of older women who have borne no sons will increase to about 30 percent, meaning that one in three elderly couples will have no sons as they head toward retirement age. “ [Ibid]
For many of these individuals, eking out sustenance in old age may amount to a begging game, whereby they beseech the families of their daughters and sons-in-law to divert resources that would otherwise be committed to the son-in-law's parents. Yet even for those who do have a son, support from one's progeny will require that the traditional ethos of filial piety holds firm; a presumption that may no longer be taken for granted in a country whose lifestyles and mores are undergoing rapid change. “ [Ibid]
Within China today, most people have become accustomed to the notion of the country's inevitable rise in the decades ahead. However, the vulnerabilities of its aging population also cast much of China on a course of increasing peril. “ [Ibid]
Some demographers view a population decline as a positive things, saying it will reduce food and water shortages and curb pollution.
China’s Coming Demographic Calamity
China's population of over-60s is, at 178million, the size of Pakistan's entire population. According to Beijing's projections, by 2042 China's over-60s will number about 390 million, which, if it were a country, would be the third most populous on the planet. [Source: Leo Lewis, The Times, July 28, 2012]
Massive urbanisation has brought younger Chinese to the cities and drained the desire to care for their ageing, often rural-based, parents at home. Even as the projections become increasingly threatening, the government response has lacked obvious vigour. The number of nursing home beds is enough for only 1.8 per cent of the country's elderly population. The homes that do exist are massively overcrowded and depend largely on underskilled migrant workers. [Ibid]
The profile of China's ageing crisis will soon be more threatening than in other countries because of its speed and scale, Li Jianxin, a demographer at Beijing University, told The Times. Other countries that have reached a similar inflection point, such as Japan or South Korea, did so at later stages in their development. "Japan got rich before it got old. We have not done that and we have not had time to establish the same sort of social welfare systems," Professor Li said. "There are no models for us to follow."
He warned that the dramatic change in the structure of China's population would affect every aspect of the economy, and be all the more potent for being fundamentally unnatural in origin. The ageing of the population would have happened anyway, but family planning speeded up the process, and the authorities are stubbornly reluctant to acknowledge that. [Ibid]
Elderly Living Alone in China
Keith B. Richburg wrote in the Washington Post, “Rapid urbanization, coupled with the one-child policy and other societal changes, has left tens of millions of elderly people living alone, often with little in the way of government aid. China has few nursing homes and no tradition of professional caretakers to look after the elderly when they become infirm. [Source: Keith B. Richburg, Washington Post, January 18, 2012]
China has 178 million people who are 60 or older, according to government census figures. Li Liguo, the minister of social affairs, said that number will jump to 216 million, or 16.7 percent of the population, by 2015. At that time, Li said, there will be 51 million “empty nesters” 65 or older and living alone.
The elderly in the countryside is really worrying,” said Therese Hesketh, a professor of global health at the University College London who has studied China’s population policies. “Even in the U.K. at Christmastime, this is an issue that comes up,” with smaller families and couples deciding whose parents to visit, Hesketh said. “This is a universal issue magnified in China by the one-child policy.”
Elderly People and Their Children in China
Old people have traditionally been taken care of by their children. Nursing homes for the elderly are still an alien idea in much of Asia. Those that enter nursing homes often feel as if they are being sent away and rejected.
Traditionally, grown children took care of their parents when they became old. Three in ten Chinese families have grandparents living in the same household. Things are changing quick. Just a few yeare ago, about 70 percent of China's elderly people, particularly in rural areas, live with their children or relatives while less than 1 million live in retirement homes.
The demographics expert Cai Feng told Newsweek the one-child generation are “more likely to be spoiled and self-centered. As adults, children of this generation lack the inclination to support their parents.” A law passed in 1996, stipulated that children were responsible for taking care of their parents in old age. Still a lot of young Chinese have said they are willing to take care of their elderly parents. In one survey, 66.2 percent of Chinese high school students said they planned to take care of their parents in old age (compared to of 15.7 percent of Japanese high school students).
“Once ensconced in intimate neighborhoods of courtyard houses and small lanes and surrounded by relatives and acquaintances, older people in China are increasingly moving into lonely high-rises and feeling forgotten,” Lafraniere wrote. “Whereas once several generations shared the same dwelling, more than half of all Chinese over the age of 60 now live separately from their adult children, according to a November 2010 report by China’s National Committee on Aging, an advisory group to the State Council. That percentage shoots up to 70 percent in some major cities, the report said. Half of those over the age of 60 suffer from chronic illness and about 3 in 10 suffer from depression or other mental disorders, the group said.
In 2006, 42 percent of Chinese families consisted of an old couple living alone. In a survey in 2002, half of the elderly respondents said they preferred to live alone rather than with their children. The finding dispelled the concept that most elderly Chinese want to be taken care of by their children.
In China there are contests for best children, The winner of the Model Filial Daughter-in-Law contest in Shanxi in 2006 received $60 prize and the opportunity to compete in the national contest. She cheerfully took care of her father-in-law and disabled sibling for two decades. The winner of the National Person of the Year contest gave his mother one of his kidneys without saying anything. “My contribution to may mother does not compare to what she has given me,” he said. Dramas on state-run television that deal with filial themes include Nine Daughters at Home and My Old Parents.
There are newspapers ads that link lonely elderly people who feel ignored by their children with adult women who want to be adopted. The women, who tend to be married and and in their 40s, visit their elderly hosts on the weekends and do things like clean and play cards with their host. One host told Newsweek, “I consider them my real daughters now.”
Proposed Law Would Force Visits to Mom and Dad
Sharon Lafraniere wrote in the New York Times that one Chinese ministry has proposed that the government mandate closer families. Under a proposal submitted by the Civil Affairs Ministry to China’s State Council, adult children would be required by law to regularly visit their elderly parents. If they do not, parents can sue them. ‘Before, the courts did not accept this kind of lawsuit,’ Wu Ming, a deputy inspector for the ministry, told The Legal Evening News this month. ‘But from now on, they will have to open up a case.’[Source: Sharon Lafraniere, New York Times, January 29, 2011]
The proposed amendment to a 1996 law on rights of the aged could be considered by the National People’s Congress, China’s government-appointed legislature, But Jing Jun, a sociology professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing, told the New York Times it was unlikely to pass. “The national delegates are rational enough,” he said. Some specialists support the proposal. “I know the person who drafted this provision, and the first thing I told him was ‘Really nice move,” said Ninie Wang, international director of the Gerontological Society of China, a Beijing-based nonprofit research group. “The whole society needs to start seeing that we need to give the elderly more care and attention.”
“The notion that adult children should care for their aged parents is deeply ingrained in Chinese society, Lafraniere wrote. “Offspring who shirk their responsibilities are met with scorn — and sometimes legal judgments. In Shandong Province, for instance, a court ordered three daughters to each pay their 80-year-old mother between 350 to 500 renminbi, roughly $53 to $75 a month, after the mother claimed that they ignored her and treated her like a burden, The Qingdao Evening News reported. “
Proposed Law Would Punish Grown Children Who Demand Money from Their Parents
“The Civil Affairs Ministry is not the only government agency rushing to the defense of older people. Last week, the eastern province of Jiangsu passed an ordinance forbidding adult children from forcing their parents to give them money or goods, according to The Yangzi Evening News.”[Source: Sharon Lafraniere, New York Times, January 29, 2011]
China terms adult children who lean too heavily on their parents ‘kenlao zu’ — literally, people who nibble on their elders. The Chinese Research Center on Aging, a government-financed research center under the Civil Affairs Ministry, estimates that 3 in 10 adult Chinese remain partly or totally financially dependent on their parents.
Like the proposed national amendment, the provincial ordinance encourages adult children to see their parents regularly. What constitutes regular — as opposed to occasional or infrequent — is unclear. So is how such a requirement could be enforced. Mr. Wu, the Civil Affairs Ministry official, said in his interview with The Legal Evening News that lawsuits accusing children of emotional neglect of their parents ‘would be different from normal lawsuits. Because the amendment tries to govern social behavior, he said, ‘some details cannot be set forth very clearly.’ He suggested some lawsuits might end in supervision or mediation.
The amendment also addresses the need for more facilities, community care and in-home services for the older people, as well as the need for more social benefits, like free routine medical checkups. A spokesman for the ministry said he could not comment on the proposed amendment because it had not yet become law.
Retirement in China
Each year 3 million Chinese retire. The mandatory retirement age is 60 for men and 50 for women. One solution to the aging problem in China is to defer retirement for several years, but this wouldl mean fewer opportunities for young people entering the job market. Many companies want employees to retire early so more positions become available for young people.
Many retirees have a lot of time and limited resources. They like to hang out in the streets chatting with their friends or congregate in parks doing tai chi, ballroom dancing or some other activity. One elderly man told the New York Times, “Many old Chinese loving fly kites because it can take up much time, and its cost is free.”
In 2005, only 1 percent of Chinese older than 80 were in elder care facilities, compared to 20 percent in the United States. There are only 10 nursing home beds for every 1,000 elderly who need them.
There is an effort to open more private retirement homes and provide for the means for people to pay for them. Some elderly live happily in small profit-making retirement homes that cost $1,000 to get into and charge $90 a month. Residents do tai chi in the morning and receive frequent visits form their grandchildren.
The elderly population is unevenly distributed. Most live in the less well-off rural areas.
Exercise for the Elderly
Early each morning millions of elderly Chinese gather in parks to exercise and socialize. A 1995 nationwide fitness program helped establish some 30,000 recreation areas, where the elderly and others can congregate.
The elderly do tai chi, calisthenics and various kinds of dances and exercises. One 82-year-old regular at Shanghai’s Fuxing Park told National Geographic, “I dance rumba and cha-cha for my physique, but more importantly because it makes me happy.”
On study involving 37,000 elderly in China found that regular exercise among people 80 or older reduced the risk of mortality by 20 percent.
Elderly and Pensions in China
Fewer than 30 percent of urban dwellers have pensions and virtually none of the 700 million in the countryside have them. Only 15 percent of those that retire have pensions. The existing state pension system covers only a sixth of the work force and is already saddled with liabilities more than China’s GDP.
Rural peasants generally don't receive any pensions. They are taken care of by their families. Elderly couples in Beijing that receive a pension live on a combined pension of around $180 a month. Many receive much less than that.
Many elderly have been denied the comfortable pensions they thought the had been promised. One former rocket scientist who was forced to work as a bookkeeper at a restaurant to make ends meet told the Los Angeles Times, “I gave my youth to my country and did everything the party asked of me to do. Now I’m old and have no sense of security.. If I stayed home and dwelt on my resentment, I might die early from heartache. It’s better to work and do something with my time.”
The absence of an adequate safety net slows consumption as Chinese save heavily to pay for health care, schooling and retirement.The government is creating a special welfare program including pensions, health care and other programs to deal with the rising number of elderly. The government has said that as China becomes increasingly affluent it is its responsibility to operate such programs.
See Welfare System
New Facilities for the Elderly in China
Leo Lewis wrote in The Times: “It is mid-morning on the outskirts of Tianjin and the sales agents at the Eco Health Farm are zealously touting the joys of the mahjong greenhouse, the pumpkin farm and the ultimate luxury of a 24-hour "happiness butler". Beyond the manicured showroom, welding guns and cranes work in a grinding din of effort, battling to finish the compound and be ready for an experiment designed to spare China from demographic calamity. [Source: Leo Lewis, The Times, July 28, 2012]
Anyone can buy "dwelling rights" to Eco Health Farm apartments for between £50,000 and £90,000, but the only inhabitants will be women over 50 and men over 55. The dwelling rights become a fully tradeable asset, and the developer will buy the rights back unless they can be sold to someone else at a profit.The concept, though not entirely new to the West, is designed to address a series of complex social changes in China between the generations - problems that have been warped and amplified by 30 years of China's one-child policy. [Ibid]
The Eco Health Farm is designed to play on precisely that set of tensions: the young can throw their money at the problem with relatively low risk and guilt, while their parents are cared for, for an annual fee, under the guise of continuing rural life. If the Eco Health Farm works, say academics, copycat versions may emerge, and the area between Beijing and Tianjin could emerge as one of several Florida-style clusters housing millions of pensioners. [Ibid]
The Eco Health Farm, built by a state-owned company and taking its instructions directly from a paragraph in the 12th Five-Year Plan of the Chinese Communist Party, represents growing political panic in Beijing over China's impending ageing crisis. Pitching luxury retirement villages to the elderly may seem an odd way to defuse the time bomb, but, say demographers, there are not many other bright ideas out there. [Ibid]
Neglected Elderly People in China
Because of the one-child policy, elderly people will have less children to take care of them in the future. By 2024, it is estimated that a third or more of retired Chinese parents will have no living sons who have traditionally had the duty of supporting elderly parents. Already the cradle-to-grave welfare system is largely gone and single children are responsible for taking care of both their parents. This has made having daughters more favorable because they are more likely to take of their parents in old age.
These days many children don't want to shoulder the burden of taking care of their parents or don't have room in their homes. In some cases children that were spoiled when they grew up are shirking the responsibility of taking care of their parents. Already many villages across China are filled with old people and virtually void of children. Rates of elderly living alone or suffering from depression are rising. There are stories of elderly people abandoned in hospitals or suing their children for financial support.
One resident at a nursing home in Dalian told the Washington Post, “The nurses treat me better than my daughter”. A nurse at the home said, “When resident first arrive they cry almost every day, saying, ‘My children don’t want to take care of me. There’s no more filial piety.”
Zhang Kaidi, director the China Research Center on Aging, told the Washington Post, “People value money more than family ties. It is very dangerous. Parents have put all they have, all their money, attention and hope in their child, and they expect to get a return from him when they get old. But the rapid development of society has changed the traditional give-and-get social contact.”
Bereaved China Elderly Suffer under One-child Norm
Carol Huang of AFP wrote: “When Wu Rui’s 12-year-old daughter died she lost not just the only child she would ever have but also her source of security and support in old age. Today the 55-year-old takes care of herself and her own elderly parents on a paltry pension in a ramshackle two-room home, living in fear of medical emergencies she has no way to pay for. China’s one-child policy normally leaves four grandparents and two parents relying on a single caretaker for old age — and bereaved families with none. [Source: Carol Huang, AFP, October 6, 2012]
An estimated one million families nationwide have lost their sole descendant since the measure took effect in 1980, and another four to seven million are expected to do so in the next 20 to 30 years. Many, like Wu, will have no one to help them through the frailties or medical costs of old age. “If I have a big illness then I probably won’t have enough,” she says quietly. “For sure there will be difficulties.”
Wu divorced in 1994 and lost her daughter Zhang Weina one year later after a long struggle with epilepsy. She now spends much of her time at home, knitting sweaters and preparing food in a cramped kitchen — which doubles as her 76-year-old mother’s bedroom. Her 80-year-old father, his hearing failing, sits one bed over in the narrow room they share. Two light bulbs dangle from a rope and cracked paint covers the walls. Aside from ill health, Wu’s biggest fear is that their dingy but inexpensive home will soon be demolished, as many old Beijing residences have been. The other half of their centrally located neighbourhood has already been replaced by modern towers, and if their alleyway is next they may be moved to an apartment that costs more than her monthly pension of 2,000 yuan ($310). [Ibid]
Since 2001 national law has required local governments to provide “the necessary help” to families who lose their only child, but does not define what that entails. Regulations vary by area, with Sichuan province allowing families to apply to have another child while Shanghai stipulates a one-time payment of an unspecified amount. Some local governments provide small stipends, according to state news agency Xinhua, while a Beijing official told local media the capital offers 200 yuan a month and “spiritual” support in the form of visits from young people. [Ibid] “The rule has always been there but I don’t think it’s very meaningful,” says Yi Fuxian, a US-based academic and author of “Big Country in an Empty Nest”, which criticises China’s family-planning policy.
Some 4.63 percent of China’s 218 million-plus single-child families are expected to lose their son or daughter by the time they reach the age of 25, he says, citing official statistics. [ That would mean more than 10 million couples outliving their only child in the next two to three decades, minus a fraction who give birth again. Yi and other demographers argue that China must not only provide for these families but also abolish the one-child limit immediately. Its defenders say it has helped prevent over-population and lift vast numbers of Chinese out of poverty. But it is also creating instead an old-age bubble — by 2050 30 percent of Chinese will be 60 or over, the UN estimates, versus 20 percent worldwide and 10 percent in China in 2000. Without more young people, China will not have enough grandchildren to provide for their elders or workers to pay into a social security system the government is trying to build. [Ibid]
The country can now absorb a higher birth rate without risking over-population, say Yi and others. But the head of the State Population and Family Planning Commission Li Bin told Xinhua in 2011 year that China intended to “maintain and improve” existing measures, while understanding the need to address its ageing population. [Ibid]
The authorities increasingly recognise the problems the one-child policy created now that its first generation of parents is entering old age, says Gu Baochang, a professor at Beijing’s Renmin University. But they should have acted years ago as demographic dangers will only swell with time, he warns. “The later they do this, the greater the pain, the bigger the costs, and the greater the number of families who lose their only child.”
Families like Wu’s face not only uncertain futures but also an unshakeable sense of loss in a culture that emphasises family, Gu points out. One bereaved mother shares her grief on an online forum for parents like her: “All beauty has been pulled away, the darkness of the clouds and night conceal my endless pain.” Another parent wrote on the forum: “We responded to the call and only had one child. And where is the care and concern for us? There is none. Cancer, heart and brain disease, depression and other serious ailments keep coming knocking. “There is no institution facing up to our existence, let alone any department that sympathises with our sorrow. “We have fallen into lonely, bitter, tragic circumstances with no one to rely on.”
Lack of Respect for Elders in China
As China has modernized there has been a cultural shift from a society oriented towards the respect of elders to one that celebrates youth. An executive for a Chinese market research firm told the New York Times, “We can see a kind of power shift to the younger generation. This is sort of sad. The older generation is being more silent in the family and more silent in society...Kids decide what kind of products we buy, where we should travel in our vacation...The kids are substantial decision makers. “ The change has been attributed to market economics and China’s one child policy.
In Shanghai, one community decided offspring would be fined if they didn’t invite their parents home for Lunar New Year. A neighborhood committee posted the names and faces of individuals that didn’t visit their parent at least once every three months.
The Beijing government has enacted laws in which children who fail to take of their aging parents face a jail term of up to five years. Few prison sentences have been given out since 2000 when a woman committed suicide in prison after she was sentenced to eight months in jail for refusing to support her mother in law. But that doesn’t mean prison sentences are never given. In 2003, a woman was sent to jail for a year for refusing to take care of her parents and striking them in a fight.
Poverty and the Elderly in China
In the cities some retirees and pensioners get by on so little they subsist off cabbage and turnips and do not watch television or turn on the heat in their apartments because they can't afford the utility bills.
Already China is facing a situation in the countryside in which low-skilled peasants are forced to support themselves doing physical labor such as demanding field work as old age and disability set in.
There are alarmingly high suicides rates among the elderly, caused by loneliness or unwillingness to stick their families with large medical bills.
Suicide and Other Serious Problems Among the Elderly in China
“Concerns about how to care for China’s older people are growing as the nation’s population rapidly gets older, wealthier and more urbanized,” Sharon Lafraniere wrote in the New York Times. Half of those over the age of 60 suffer from chronic illness and about 3 in 10 suffer from depression or other mental disorders, the group said. [Source: Sharon Lafraniere, New York Times, January 29, 2011]
China has the world’s third highest elderly suicide rate, trailing only South Korea and Taiwan, according to Jing Jun, a sociology professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing, who compiled figures from the World Health Organization and Taiwan. The figures show a disturbing increase in suicides among the urban elderly in the past decade, a trend Mr. Jing blames partly on urbanization. [Ibid]
The average suicide rate among people 70 to 74 living in cities nearly tripled between 2002 and 2009, compared with the average rate for the 1990s, his research shows. On the plus side, government-provided insurance covering basic medical care has eased stress, possibly contributing to the decline in the suicide rate for the elderly in cities after 2006. In rural areas, the rate of suicides among the same age group fell compared with the 1990s, Mr. Jing said, but still remains far higher than the rate in urban areas. [Ibid]
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated December 2012