China's Big (and Growing) Problem With Its Elderly Population

A much-ridiculed new law allowing old people to sue their children for neglecting them highlights a social problem that isn't going to go away.
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chinaresize.jpgA new law passed on Monday allows China's elderly population to sue relatives for neglect. (Andy Wong/AP)

In most countries, failing to visit your older parents might result in a nagging phone call. In China, it can now land you in court. On Monday, the ruling Communist Party took filial piety to a whole new level when it passed an "Elderly Rights Law" that allows seniors to sue their children for neglect. The particulars of the bill may be lacking -- What constitutes a "regular" visit, after all? Do children have to come once a month, or will once a year suffice? And what about those families separated by great distances? Then there's the question of enforcement. But these are mere details -- apparently, the law has already nabbed its first violator.

Unsurprisingly, the Elderly Rights Law elicited a caustic reaction from an online population used to Beijing's displays of nanny-statism. But its passage raises this question: Why, in a culture known for venerating the elderly, is enforcing filial piety even necessary?

The answer, like with many other things in China, has to do with changes in the country caused by Deng Xiaoping's economic reforms, first introduced in the late 1970s. Historically, multiple generations of lived together under one roof, a characteristic shared by other mostly-agrarian societies throughout history, and pooled financial resources. When the Communist Party assumed control over the country in 1949, each Chinese person was assigned a hukou, or internal passport, which stipulated that they could only accrue social welfare benefits if they remained in their place of registration. The vast majority of Chinese people obtained cradle-to-grave benefits -- the so-called "iron rice bowl" -- through working for the state, and all around this system functioned well as part of China's planned economy.

Deng's reforms changed this equation. As China industrialized, rural residents began migrating to the country's booming coastal cities in order to find jobs in the manufacturing and service sectors and soon, working-age men and women from the vast interior began spending most of the year far from home, typically returning only for the annual Chinese New Year celebration. Moving to the cities vastly increased these workers' income and fueled China's incredible rise, but tore at the traditional social fabric of society: the multi-generational home. 

Accompanying the economic reforms was the one child policy, which China implemented in 1980 as a desperate fix to the country's spiraling over-population problem. The policy, has, by and large, worked as intended: China's population growth indeed slowed. But over the past 33 years, the unintended consequences piled up: There is now a large number of "4-2-1" families; that is, only children whose parents were only children and who, at some point, become solely responsible for the welfare of six people. China has loosened the One Child Policy in many ways, but the fundamental change to China's demographic outlook cannot be undone. Nearly 180 million people in China were over 60 years of age in 2010 -- and that figure is expected to double in the next 20 years. Simply put, there will be more old people in China and fewer young people able to help them. 

30 years ago, nearly all Chinese people lived where their family had always lived, seldom traveled for work, and shared the work of caring for their elderly relatives with multiple siblings. Filial piety -- what the Rush University physician and researcher Xin Qi Dong refers to as the core aspect of Chinese culture -- was simply a given. But China's boom years have unraveled this arrangement, and one consequence has been the increase in elder neglect and abuse throughout the country. Some of these cases -- like that of the farmer who forced his 100 year-old mother to live in an actual pigsty -- have inflamed public opinion in China. But more mundane forms of abuse, including psychological trauma, are equally concerning.

What can be done about it? One possible solution would be to build more senior assistance facilities, the sort that provides care and companionship for elderly people across the developed world. These homes, though, are relatively rare in China and don't appear to be catching on: Dr. Dong pointed out that the latest 5-year plan included little provision for them. 

So perhaps the new Elderly Parents Law isn't so ridiculous after all. However, its first week has not been auspicious. In an example of classic Chinese ingenuity, some entrepreneurially minded citizens have already begun hiring surrogates to visit their parents for them. How this will assuage the elderly is unclear -- nothing says "filial piety" like hiring complete strangers to visit your folks for you, right? -- its very existence is an indication that the law doesn't address the underlying trends causing the problem in the first place.

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Matt Schiavenza is a former associate editor at The Atlantic

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