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.