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As enriched China ages, families strained

By Jaime FlorCruz, CNN
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • China's elderly population hit 167 million in 2009, making up 12.5 % of the population
  • Life expectancy is 73 years in 2008, compared to about 47 years in 1960
  • Compared to developed economies, China doesn't have a strong social security system
  • Beijing is considering a law requiring children to visit and care for elderly parents

Editor's Note: "Jaime's China" is a weekly column about Chinese society and politics. Jaime FlorCruz has lived and worked in China since 1971. He studied Chinese history at Peking University (1977-81) and served as TIME Magazine's Beijing correspondent and bureau chief (1982-2000).

Beijing (CNN) -- For 93-year-old widow Liu Bingdi, the Chinese lunar New Year has always been the happiest time of the year. "It's a time when we all gather for family reunion," says Mrs. Liu.

Not anymore.

"We can't get everyone together," she says, lying in bed in a two-room apartment in Beijing. On the wall hangs a photo of her husband she lost eight years ago. She has all that she needs, she tells me, but her son is not so sure.

"Mom does not get pension and retirement benefits because she was a home maker," says Liu Shiping, 70, a retired film producer. Liu says the Beijing government gives senior citizens like his mother 400 yuan, about $50, in monthly subsidy. "That helps a bit but caring for mom remains a heavy pressure for us," he says. "The family must pitch in."

More than money, Liu says, his mother needs company. Except for Liu, however, her children and grandchildren all live outside Beijing, some even overseas. She sorely misses her family.

Elderly Chinese abandoned on New Year

Mrs. Liu's plight is a grim reminder of China's new challenge: its population is aging fast as the country's fast-paced economy is causing relatives to move further afield for work, placing strains on once tight-knit families.

China's elderly population -- people over 60 -- reached 167 million in 2009, making up 12.5 % of the total population, according to a report by the China National Committee on Aging (CNCA), a government body. It is growing by over 3 million a year.

China's economic ascent has also raised life expectancies: the average Chinese person lived to 73 in 2008, compared to just less than 47 years in 1960, according to the World Bank.

China is not the only country facing a rapidly graying population. The ranks of elderly in Japan, the U.S. and developed countries in Europe are swelling as the Baby Boomer generation starts to reach retirement age. But these affluent countries have well developed social security and welfare systems in place to take care of the needs of the elderly. China does not.

Beijing officials are aware of the challenge. "China's aging problem comes in an under-developed economy, which requires us to improve the relevant social security and services system," said Vice Premier Hui Liangyu, who also heads the CNCA.

Beijing is even considering amending a law to compel children to visit their elderly parents and care for them. Under the proposal submitted last month, adult children would be required by law to visit their elderly parents. If they do not, parents can sue them.

Public reaction to the proposal varies. "Filial piety is one of China's finest traditions," says Liu Shiping. "It is just right to promote it, but it's a tragedy that we now have to use a law to impose it."

Others doubt if the law is the right solution. Every family's situation is different, argues Fudan professor Zhao Xiaoming. "Besides, there's something wrong with the law getting into the details of people's private lives," Zhao told Eastmoney.com.

I feel so lonely and I would rather die than be alone
--Zhang Meiling, 81-year-old Beijing resident
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In rare cases, some parents have taken their children to court and won. In Anhui province, an 85-year-old grandmother won a case against her children when the court ruled that they must pay 1,400 yuan (about $210) monthly to support her rent, medical care and other living expenses.

Until an extensive welfare system is put in place, Chinese children will be mainly responsible for looking after elderly parents.

China now has more than 100 million people with no siblings as a result of the rules imposed in the late 1970s that limit many couples to only one child. That means one child will be responsible for taking care of two parents and four grandparents or what some call the "4-2-1 syndrome."

Do children want to care for their parents?

In one recent survey, 66.2% of Chinese high school students said they planned to take care of their parents in old age.

Taking care of parents is part of Chinese tradition but the country's one-child policy and the trend of people moving away for work have put strains on the traditional family structure.

Some are left alone, like 81-year-old Zhang Meiling, who sits sadly in a tiny one room house in Beijing. "No one came to visit me," she tells our CNN crew on the eve of the Chinese New Year. "All the other people are busy with the Spring Festival. No one comes here. I feel so lonely and I would rather die than be alone."

Zhang has no children. She has two sisters but they too are old and live far away with their grandsons. From time to time, volunteers from Xiezuozhe (Facilitators), a non-government organization, drop by to visit. For a while they make her happier, but nothing can take the place of family.

Chinese authorities are trying to educate the youth about the need to care for their parents. The Ministry of Education has supported a resurgence of Confucian studies, which promote respect for the elders.

Some institutions are trying to promote filial piety by holding contests for "best children" and "model filial daughter-in law." Yunnan province has given awards for "10 filial piety stars". Two years ago, according to a Xinhua report, winners included a 43-year-old man who has been caring for five elderly people since he was 18.

 
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