A month ago, under China’s new law dictating that all adult children have to go home and visit their elderly parents "frequently," a woman in Wuxi was ordered by a local court to see her 77-year-old mother, who had sued her for neglect. The ruling: visits every two months, plus financial support. The case was reported widely, calling attention to the effects of China’s rapid urbanization — and one-child policy — on the aging population, as younger adults have flocked from rural villages for jobs in the country’s huge cities. At the end of 2011, the Chinese population aged 60 and older was estimated at 185 million (about half were reported to live apart from their children). By the end of this year, that number is expected to balloon to 202 million.
China’s government is facing the massive burden of supporting its growing millions of elderly citizens at the exact same moment as a roaring urban economy is taking away the traditional filial support system. So this odd new law is aimed at a very real problem: the rapidly declining Chinese extended family. As policy, it’s controversial — how do you legislate family love and loyalty, and what is it worth in yuan? Will the law backfire, making children resent their parents instead? What does "frequently" mean, and how do you enforce that, anyway? But as social commentary, it’s a wake-up call, and most everyone agrees that a new safety net needs to be put in place.
My father is 67 years-old, and lives in the sprawling outskirts of Guangzhou. I last saw him a year ago. Though I’d love to see him "frequently," it’s tough — I have two small boys, work full-time, and live in California. It is a 15-hour-plus plane trip between San Francisco and Guangzhou. For many Chinese, the trip by train, plane, or car to their hometowns is even longer, and prohibitively expensive. (The law, I should note, makes no mention of how or whether it applies to elderly parents whose children live abroad). Though millions manage to get time off to travel during the lunar new year holiday, migrant workers can labor for years before returning home for a visit.
China has yet to set up a comprehensive social security system, and the people who need it most, the rural elderly, are the least likely to have any kind of old-age insurance. Of course, the law claims not to be just about tending to your parents’ financial and physical security, but also to their so-called "spiritual needs": a strong local network of family and friends to provide companionship, as social isolation has long been shown to shorten lives, especially among the elderly. But it turns out you can buy that, too, or at least some semblance of it: in the two weeks after the new law was established in China, more than 100 new online elderly care providers sprang up on Taobao.com, one of China’s biggest shopping sites, offering services that included just dropping by for a chat.
These challenges aren’t exactly new. People are living longer in nearly every society. My father would balk at being called "elderly," and he’s in excellent health. He still works as an artist, and he lives with his wife, who is a wonderful companion. For now, they are busy with work and can’t find the time to visit us; we plan to see them next year. Though I think often about how I’d like my father to get to know my children better, in the way that my grandparents were present in my life when I was growing up, there are ways we work around the geography. We "visit" through the computer, with the occasional video chat that blips in and out. But there are some things that can’t be done online. The question of how we decide who cares for him when he’s truly unable to do so himself will come up eventually, as it does for all of us. China is merely confronting the logistical nightmare of having to deal with it all at once.
Top image: An elderly couple feed their great-grandson with a piece of cake as they sit under the sun in winter in Jiaxing, Zhejiang province. (REUTERS/William Hong)