PROBLEMS AFFECTING CHINA’S ELDERLY
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.
Jiayang Fan wrote in The New Yorker: In China “nearly twenty per cent of the population—a quarter of a billion people—is sixty or older. The U.S., with some seventy million people over sixty, has more than fifty-five hundred such institutions In China, the family has traditionally provided care for the vulnerable: “Raise a child against old age; stockpile grain against famine,” one proverb counsels. Confucian expectations of filial piety remain strong, but for most Chinese they have become increasingly difficult to fulfill. Dizzying economic expansion has made China’s population ever more mobile, and the one-child policy, in force from 1979 to 2015, means that many adults have no siblings with whom to share the burden of caring for relatives. Hundreds of millions of workers who have moved to the country’s booming cities cannot do much more for aging parents back in remote villages than wire whatever money they can spare. [Source: Jiayang Fan, The New Yorker, March 30, 2020]
Hsiang-ming kung wrote in the “International Encyclopedia of Marriage and Family”: Modern industrial life has weakened the superior status of the aged. The power of filial norms that call for children to live with their elderly parents has declined . Many aged persons are in danger of being left without financial support. The situation is even worse for aged women because they experience double jeopardy on age and gender grounds. Those elderly parents who still live with their adult son usually have to help with house keeping, child caring, and they sometimes suffer from the grimaces of the younger generation. Elderly abuse is no longer a rare phenomenon. Regardless of revisions of the inheritance laws that guarantee the inheritance rights of widows as well as the elimination of the value of widowhood chastity, remarriage for widows, especially those with grown children, continues to be considered disgraceful. In fact, widowed as well as divorced women in Taiwan experience the highest distress level compared with men and women across all marital statuses. [Source: Hsiang-ming kung, “International Encyclopedia of Marriage and Family”, Gale Group Inc., 2003]
Poverty and High Suicide Rates Among China's Elderly
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. 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.
There are alarmingly high suicides rates among the elderly, caused by loneliness or unwillingness to stick their families with large medical bills. Sharon Lafraniere wrote in the New York Times. 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. [Source: Sharon Lafraniere, New York Times, January 29, 2011]
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.
Neglected Elderly People in China
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.”
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.
Neglect of the Elderly in 19th Century China
Arthur Henderson Smith wrote in “Chinese Characteristics”: “In speaking of filial piety among the Chinese, we have endeavoured to do justice to the strong moral convictions of the .people in general as to the duty of proper treatment of the aged. Perhaps there is no other subject to which the national conscience so quickly and so uniformly responds. Yet whoever has the opportunity of intimate acquaintance with the inner aspects of Chinese social life, is well aware that it is not uncommon to find parents who are insufficiently provided with food. The writer is personally acquainted with several such, and the facts are certified not only by the affirmation of the old people themselves, but by the general consensus of the neighbours who are in all cases thoroughly familiar with the particulars. Cases of harsh treatment of parents, even to the extent of beating them, can be heard of by careful and judicious enquiry, but they are certainly not very common, and in such cases the sentiment of the family, the clan, and the village is always against the offenders, although they sometimes escape punishment. [Source:“Chinese Characteristics” by Arthur Henderson Smith,1894]
“In the Hsien district where the writer lives, there have been two instances of this sort within recent years. In one of them, a man after beating his own mother, took a gun and shot at her, but was compelled by public opinion to run away from home. He subsequently returned, made an apology through an uncle, and he and his mother are still living together and since then he has never once tried to kill her! In another village but a few miles distant from this one, a wealthy man not many years ago actually killed his father with an axe, because he was ashamed of the old man's poverty-stricken appearance! In this case the guilty son was sent to the provincial capital for trial and was executed by the slicing process. On the other hand, in the same town with the man who shot at his mother, lives a dumb man, whose zeal in caring for his aged mother has long since attracted public notice; and by means of a representation of the local magistrate, the dumb man has been honoured by the hanging of a lacquered tablet over his humble door, certifying to his virtues.
“In the village where these lines are written, lives an old lady seventy-two years of age, who has been for almost a generation a refugee from her home. She is entirely blind, and has been so for many years, and yet she contrives to cook, make her own trifling purchases, spin thread, which she sells at the markets, and laboriously gather fuel a straw at a time, wherever she can find it. It is impossible even for a Chinese to live in a condition of greater "bitterness" than this old woman, whose existence has only been prolonged by the kindness of some of her neighbours. Yet the object of this kindness has two sons living, who at last accounts were perfectly aware of their mother's condition, in which they have never taken the smallest interest, and with whom they have not even communicated, for more than twenty years.* There is a
Elderly Chinese That Suffer Because of the One-Child Policy
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).
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. “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 provide for these families. Families like Wu’s face not only uncertain futures but also an unshakeable sense of loss in a culture that emphasises family. 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.”
Aging Parents Neglected by the Children in China
Associated Press reported: “Although respect for the elderly is deeply ingrained in Chinese society, three decades of market reforms have accelerated the breakup of China's traditional extended family, and there are few affordable alternatives, such as retirement homes. News outlets frequently carry stories about elderly parents being abused or neglected, or of children seeking to take control of their parents' assets without their knowledge. State media reported this month that a grandmother in her 90s in the prosperous eastern province of Jiangsu had been forced by her son to live in a pig pen for two years. [Source: Associated Press, July 1, 2013, December 28, 2012]
Julie Makinen wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Already, nearly half of the country's seniors live apart from their children, a phenomenon unheard of a generation ago. Hundreds of millions of young workers from the countryside have migrated to cities for work, leaving their parents behind, and many urban professionals live apart from Mom and Dad.” [Source: Julie Makinen, Los Angeles Times, July 29, 2013]
Edward Wong wrote in the New York Times, “Many aging parents in China, as in other industrialized nations, complain these days about not seeing their children enough. And the children say the stresses of daily life, especially in the rapidly expanding cities, prevent them from carving out time for their parents. “China’s economy is flourishing, and lots of young people have moved away to the cities and away from their aging parents in villages,” Dang Janwu, vice director of the China Research Center on Aging, said. “This is one of the consequences of China’s urbanization. The social welfare system can answer to material needs of the elders, but when it comes to the spiritual needs, a law like this becomes very necessary.” [Source: Edward Wong, New York Times, July 2, 2013 ]
“In 2011, Xinhua, the state news agency, ran an article that said nearly half of the 185 million people age 60 and older live apart from their children. People residing in a different city from their parents, including legions of migrant workers, usually find time to go home only during the Lunar New Year holiday.
Law Requires Chinese to Visit Their Aging Parents
In July 2013, China passed a law requiring children to visit their aging parents “often” and attend to their spiritual needs if they live apart. Edward Wong wrote in the New York Times, “ Chinese officials apparently think it is not enough these days to count on tales and parental admonitions to teach children the importance of filial piety, arguably the most treasured of traditional virtues in Chinese society. The government enacted a law aimed at compelling adult children to visit their aging parents. The law, called “ Protection of the Rights and Interests of Elderly People,” has nine clauses that lay out the duties of children and their obligation to tend to the “spiritual needs of the elderly.” [Source: Edward Wong, New York Times, July 2, 2013 ]
“Children should go home “often” to visit their parents, the law said, and occasionally send them greetings. Companies and work units should give employees enough time off so they can make parental visits. The law was passed in December 2012 by the standing committee of the National People’s Congress. It does not stipulate any punishments for people who neglect their parents. Nevertheless, that officials felt the need to make filial duty a legal matter is a reflection of the monumental changes taking place throughout Chinese society.” The law does not specify how frequently visits to parents should occur.
Tao Liqun, a researcher with the Gerontological Society of China told the Los Angeles Times, Beyond economic support, seniors need daily care and emotional comfort: "The new law will focus some attention on the psychological aspects." One of the drafters, Xiao Jinming, a law professor at Shandong University, told Associated Press the new law was primarily aimed at raising awareness."It is mainly to stress the right of elderly people to ask for emotional support. ... We want to emphasize there is such a need," he said...It remains to be seen how much the amended law changes the status quo. however. Elderly parents in China already have been suing their adult children for emotional support, and the new wording does not specify how often people must visit or clarify penalties for those who do not. [Source: Louise Watt, Associated Press, July 1, 2013 \=/]
In 2018, SupChina reported: “Five siblings have been punished for not fulfilling filial duties after their elderly father died alone last year. The man’s son and four daughters “have each been sentenced to up to two years in jail for abandoning him, the Beijing News reported. [Source: SupChina, September 18, 2018]
Reaction to the Neglected Parent Law
Julie Makinen wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Across China, the "visit your parents" measure has inspired applause, derision and a bit of soul-searching: Are the nation's traditional values and time-honored family customs slipping away so fast, many ask, that they must be encoded in law? Some seniors say an increasingly self-involved younger generation of workaholics needs a stern reminder of its moral obligations. "This is a good law. Children should never forget their parents, no matter how busy they are," said an 88-year-old retired factory worker, surnamed Mu, who was taking his daily 6 a.m. constitutional in Beijing's Ritan Park. "I live with my oldest son, but I have a friend whose kids come back only once a year to visit." [Source: Julie Makinen, Los Angeles Times, July 29, 2013]
“But 72-year-old Zhang Boxi, who was doing stretching exercises nearby with his wife, Cheng Zunying, 70, said the law, which is vague and doesn't specify punishments, would be hard to implement. "How often is 'often'? Every five days? Every 10 days?" he asked. "What if the boss won't let you take time to go? It's not right to use the law to dictate emotional relations between parents and children, or husbands and wives." Cheng concurred. "If our two sons stopped visiting us, would we sue them? That's impossible," she said, laughing. "Totally impossible."
Cleaning lady Wang Yi, 57, who lives alone in Shanghai, told Associated Press the new law is "better than nothing." Her two sons work several hundred kilometers (miles) away in southern Guangdong province and she sees them only at an annual family reunion. "It is too little, for sure. I think twice a year would be good," she said. "We Chinese people raise children to take care of us when we are old." [Source: Louise Watt, Associated Press, July 1, 2013 \=/]
Zhang Ye, a 36-year-old university lecturer from eastern Jiangsu Province, said the amended law was "unreasonable" and put too much pressure on people who migrate away from home in search of work or independence. "For young people who are abroad or work really far away from their parents, it is just too hard and too expensive to visit their parents," she said. "I often go to visit my parents and call them ... (but) if a young person doesn't want to, I doubt such a law will work." \=/
Edward Wong wrote in the New York Times, Chinese officials have “said the law had already been successful in prompting significant discussion of the issue. Others have been more skeptical. Guo Cheng, a novelist, told the 1.3-million followers of his microblog: “Kinship is part of human nature; it is ridiculous to make it into a law. It is like requiring couples who have gotten married to have a harmonious sex life.” [Source: Edward Wong, New York Times, July 2, 2013 ]
Grown Chinese Children Who Demand Money from Their Parents and Parents Who Sue Them
In January 2011, 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.” Sharon Lafraniere wrote in the New York Times: 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. How law would be enforced is not clear. A Civil Affairs Ministry official told the The Legal Evening News that lawsuits accusing children of emotional neglect and other offenses regarding parents “would be different from normal lawsuits. [Source: Sharon Lafraniere, New York Times, January 29, 2011]
“The notion that adult children should care for their aged parents is deeply ingrained in Chinese society, Sharon Lafraniere wrote in the New York Times. “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.” [Source: Sharon Lafraniere, New York Times, January 29, 2011]
Louise Watt of Associated Press wrote: “Even before the Law of Protection of Rights and Interests of the Aged was amended, there were several cases of elderly parents suing their children for emotional support. Court officials generally settle such cases by working out an arrangement for sons or daughters to agree to visit more frequently. Typically, no money is involved. In the first ruling since the new wording, a court in the eastern Chinese city of Wuxi ordered a couple to visit the woman's mother or face possible fines — and even detention.” The court ruled that the woman and her husband and visit the 77-year-old mother — who lives 40 kilometers away — at least once every two months to tend to her “spiritual needs” in addition to mandatory holiday visits, or face possible fines and detention, according to the state-run People's Court Daily. The court also ruled the couple had to pay compensation [Source: Louise Watt, Associated Press, July 1, 2013]
Julie Makinen wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Kleenex in hand, the retired farmer in the purple plaid shirt perched behind the plaintiff's table in a rural courtroom and wept as she complained to the judge about her eldest son. For the last year and a half, 78-year-old Li Lanyu said, she's been asking him to visit and provide her with grain and cooking oil. "The son has forgotten the mother!" she shouted, burying her face in her hands. Her son wasn't there to defend himself. Although he tends a plot of land, he leaves for weeks at a time to toil as a construction worker hundreds of miles away. His wife and daughter told the judge he earns just $166 a month. Visiting more often was possible, the daughter said, but they could afford only a fraction of the food the grandmother wanted. Until recently, Li Wanglun, 60, may have been a disappointment, even an embarrassment, to his mother...Now, though, he may also be a lawbreaker...Li's lawsuit was widely reported in the Chinese media. It was the first such case to come before a court in Sichuan province. Cases also have been brought in Henan and Jiangsu provinces. [Source: Julie Makinen, Los Angeles Times, July 29, 2013]
Neglected Parent Law: Some See It the Government Shirking Its Responsibility to the Elderly
Julie Makinen wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Some younger people believe the government's campaign is not all altruistic but instead reflects concern about the demands that a swelling population of seniors and a shrinking group of workers will put on state finances. Authorities, they say, want individuals to bear a significant share of the cost of elder care.” [Source: Julie Makinen, Los Angeles Times, July 29, 2013]
“Lou Luo, 32, an Internet marketing specialist in Beijing, visits his parents, both 60, once a year in the northeastern province of Jilin. Eventually, he said, he or his younger brother will have to move back there to look after them because government residency rules make it impossible for his parents to move to the capital. "My parents cannot collect their pension and get their medical bills reimbursed in Beijing if they come to live with me," he said. "So the elderly are too scared to leave their hometown." Lou said he worries that if his parents get seriously ill, the expenses will not be covered by state insurance and will be overwhelming. "I'm not going to get married or have children, as having children is very costly," he said. "Being childless will make me financially more burden-free to care for my parents."
“Tao said the state needs to think creatively about its next policy steps. Among the possible initiatives he suggested: designating specific holidays for home visits, offering real estate tax incentives to encourage people to live near their parents or offering credits for those who take care of their severely ill parents at home."The children also need to be supported," he said. "It can't all be one-sided."
More than 9 Million Chinese Had Dementia in 2010
Around 9.19 million people in China had dementia in 2010, compared with 3.68 million 20 years earlier, according to a study in the journal The Lancet based on examining 89 academic studies published in English and Chinese between 1990 and 2010. AFP reported: “In what its authors say is the most detailed study into age-related mental health in China, the paper says prevalence of dementia there is rising far faster than thought and the country is ill-equipped to deal with the problem. The team’s aim was to go beyond previous probes where data was sketchy, and derive estimates on the basis of internationally-recognised diagnoses. They calculate that in 2010 there were 9.19 million people with dementia in China, of whom 5.69 million had Alzheimer's. This compares with 3.68 million cases of dementia in 1990, of whom 1.93 million had Alzheimer's.” [Source: AFP, June 8, 2013 ]
“The 2010 estimate means that China that year had more individuals living with Alzheimer's disease than any other country in the world, says the study. It says global estimates for this disease may have to be ramped up by at least five million cases, or almost 20 percent. One of the lead authors, Igor Rudan of the University of Edinburgh Medical School in Scotland, told AFP the dementia rise was partly due to a demographic bulge. China's population live far longer today than two decades ago, in parallel with the country's rise in prosperity, he said. "Before, the age for dementia, which is usually over 75, was rarely being reached in low- and middle-income countries... All of a sudden you have an explosion in the older population range, which is reflected in the cases of dementia." “Rudan added, though, that demographics only explained part of the rise in incidence. He did not rule out the possibility that dementia was being detected and recorded more widely today than in the past.
“The paper raised tough questions about China's preparedness, given that western countries are only now beginning to realise the hugely expensive bill for helping people with dementia. For example, the researchers found that dementia is more prevalent among Chinese women than among men. This has major implications for health policy, as women in China live far longer than men and comprise up to 75 percent of the population aged 85 years or older. "Adequate resources should be provided at the national, local, family and individual levels to tackle this growing problem," said researcher Wei Wang of Edith Cowan Medical University in Perth, Australia, and Capital, Medical University in Beijing. "Public awareness campaigns are needed to counteract common misconceptions about dementia - including that it is not very common in the Chinese population, that it is a normal part of ageing, or that it is better not to know about it because nothing can be done about it."
Image Sources: 1) Posters, Landsberger Posters http://www.iisg.nl/~landsberger/; 2) Photos, Beifan and Julie Chao
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.
Last updated September 2022