China-Style Eldercare: Kids Can Be Sued For Not Visiting Parents

By Adam Minter | July 3, 2013

What are elderly parents to do when their children no longer bother to visit? In China, there’s a new answer: sue the kids.

That’s what 77-year-old “Granny Chu,” of Wuxi, China, did in April. On Monday, a court heard her case against her allegedly neglectful daughter and son-in-law, and quickly issued a verdict: an order that the daughter and son-in-law visit on a bimonthly basis, as well as during important holidays.

The timing was impeccable: Also on Monday, China’s long awaited revision to its “Law to Protect the Elderly” was enacted, along with a controversial new provision requiring adult children to visit their parents “often.” The court wasted no time in citing the law as the basis for its decision.

Granny Chu’s is a tale worthy of a guilt-ridden Woody Allen comedy, except that the verdict — and the law that enabled it – – are designed to address a serious problem in contemporary China: How to financially and “spiritually” (in the words of the new legislation) support an aging population. Of course, major problems meeting the pension and health care needs of a rapidly aging population are certainly not unique to China.

But the scale of the looming problem in China makes the pension shortfalls in the U.S. and Europe Union seem trivial. In 2012, Zhu Yong, deputy director of the Chinese government’s National Committee on Aging, told a Beijing conference on pension reform that in 2013 the number of Chinese over age 60 would exceed 200 million; it would peak in 2050 at 483 million.

In China’s traditional agrarian culture, those aging relatives would live with, and be supported by, their children. But the country’s modernizing economy means children are moving far from their parents to work. Moreover, thanks in large part to population-control policies, Zhu estimates that China’s workforce will shrink to 713 million by 2050, down 24.2 percent from 2011, leaving fewer children to support aging parents. This demographic crunch is creating something relatively new in China: empty-nesters.

In other words, the number of households containing parents whose adult children have moved out is growing. According to data gathered by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, in 2011 empty nests accounted for 49.7 percent of urban households and 38.7 percent of rural households. This number will increase as China’s population ages, reaching more than 54 percent of all elderly households in 2050, says Zhu Yong.

China is woefully underprepared for this shift. In February, the independent Economic Observer newspaper reported, in an article quoting Yan Qingchun, deputy director of China’s National Committee on Aging, that there are only 300,000 caregivers for the elderly in China, and less than 100,000 have “obtained professional qualifications;” of China’s 30,000 rural retirement homes, only 11,000 are “registered and legal.”

In large part, these are the alarming facts that led to the Law to Protect the Elderly. Much of the legislation is about establishing social security and health care for aging residents. But the actual details of these programs are left for bureaucrats to devise. This isn’t unusual: National Chinese legislation is typically a set of guidelines, with the fine points — including funding mechanisms — left to those expected to implement the provisions.

For example, article 29 of the new law declares: “The state shall gradually establish a long-term care insurance system. Encourage and guide the commercial insurance companies to undertake the long-term care insurance business. For the long-term disabled and older persons with financial difficulties, local governments should provide subsidies according to need.”

That’s it. And then we move on to article 30.

Of course, creating a state-run long-term care insurance system is something many developed countries have struggled to achieve. It is somewhat understandable that the Chinese government is unwilling — or unable — to spell out how precisely it plans to guide its insurance sector to do the all- but-impossible. Similarly, it’s reasonable that — lacking a government program to address the elderly-care issue — the government would emphasize the traditional role of family caregivers.

The problem is, even for Chinese who desperately want to visit their parents on a regular basis, the burden of doing so in the mobile, urbanizing society that the Chinese government has engineered, is difficult. “If the parents live in northeastern China, and their children living in the southeast, they’re unlikely to go home with any frequency,” tweeted a user in Shaanxi province via Sina Weibo — China’s most popular microblogging service — on Monday. “Can they take several flights in a week? What if the children live in another country?” For China’s hundreds of millions of low-paid migrant laborers, the burden is even heavier: For them, travel tends to be restricted to national holidays and unbearably expensive.

Nevertheless, few Chinese would object to the notion that visiting and caring for one’s parents is a moral imperative. Reverence for elders remains a cultural obligation. But over the last three decades, Chinese society has been transformed into one where modern responsibilities are overwhelming traditional responsibilities. For many, this is the bittersweet price of progress, and some microbloggers and newspaper editorialists have produced poignant commentary on the evolution of Chinese values. One of the best was published Monday in the Communist Party-owned Zhuhai Daily newspaper:

“While applauding the progress the law represents, we feel a kind of sadness in our hearts. Taking care of one’s parents is a basic Chinese duty that shouldn’t require legal encouragement. It’s shameful for children to be encouraged by the law in this way. The new law should be a wake-up call to visit your parents before they’re gone, or feel regret.”

The Chinese government is counting on it.

(Adam Minter, the Shanghai correspondent for the World View blog, is writing “Junkyard Planet,” a book on the global recycling industry. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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