In 10 years as head of an elder-care center in Confucius’s hometown of Qufu, Yang Youling has seen the Chinese philosopher’s exhortation of filial piety turned on its head.
Many children never visit their aged parents in the 50-bed home in eastern China’s Shandong province to avoid being criticized for not taking care of them at home, said Yang, 47. “The children are ashamed of being seen,” she said.
They may soon have no choice. From July 1, parents in China can sue their kids who don’t visit often enough, under a broadened law mandating children take better care of the aged. With China’s elderly population forecast to more than double to 487 million in the next 40 years, the government needs to try and limit the cost of caring for seniors.
“China’s aging problem is at a scale and speed not comparable with anywhere else in the world,” said Yuan Xin, director of Nankai University’s Aging Development Strategy Research Center in Tianjin, and a member of an advisory committee on the new rule. “My concern is how we can have sustainable economic development” while maintaining Confucian values such as respect and care for one’s parents, he said.
Traditionally, children lived with their parents and looked after them in accordance with Confucian beliefs. The ancient Chinese philosopher emphasized filial piety as the foundation of all values and placed great importance on harmony and a proper order of social relationships especially within families.
That relationship has eroded as China’s one-child policy has increased the burden on the sole offspring and people have moved to cities in pursuit of jobs.
In response, the government passed amendments to the Law for the Protection of the Rights and Interests of the Elderly on Dec. 28 to include the visitation requirement and a stipulation that employers approve the necessary leave, without specifying how often the visits should be. The law enables the elderly to seek legal recourse and prohibits “discrimination, insult, ill-treatment and abandonment” of the aged.
China also assigned a symbolic Elderly Day under the legislation, and said it will improve long-term care services and benefits for senior citizens.
“Old people left alone at home are very lonely and lack both physical and psychological care, so it’s actually better to live in a home like ours where we have people to care for them,” said Yang, director of the Xiyanghong Elderly Home that she set up in 2002, near a 2,500-year-old temple honoring Confucius. “But some think their children put them in the home because they don’t want them anymore.”
Besides an effort to preserve tradition, the rules are an economic necessity to limit the state’s burden. China’s working-age citizens ages 15 to 59 fell as a share of the population last year, and the National Committee on Aging estimates people 60 years and older will rise to 487 million by 2053 from 185 million in 2011. The U.S. population is projected to reach about 406 million in 2053, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
“The pace and scale of demographic and social change is so great most families simply do not have traditional options anymore, so change is inevitable,” said Feng Zhanlian, a Waltham, Massachusetts-based health analyst at RTI International. Feng is co-author of a study on China’s policy challenges amid a rapidly aging population that was published in the journal Health Affairs in December.
China isn’t alone in mandating filial responsibility. Singapore, Canada and at least 29 U.S. states have legislation to ensure children provide financial support for their elderly parents in need. Still, the reality is some aspects of China’s law may be hard to implement and are intended more as a guidance for social behavior, said Zhao Liangbo, deputy chief litigator at JoinWay Law Firm in Shanghai.
“This amendment, especially requirements for children to visit their elderly parents regularly, is almost impossible” to enforce, Zhao said. “Even if the children are sentenced, how would the court be able to make sure they visit regularly, and do it with sincerity?”
Lawsuits over family disputes are so far rare in China, and are more likely to be resolved through court-appointed mediators, Zhao said. Parents may hesitate to take their kids to court because of social stigma and “loss of face” in publicizing family problems, while already-strained ties may be further tested, Yang of the Xiyanghong Elderly Home said.
In one case in northern Shanxi province, a divorcee in her 70s surnamed Nie sued two sons for support three times in the past decade, most recently winning a court award of 2,000 yuan ($322) a year from each son, the state-controlled Chinanews.com reported Dec. 13, citing the People’s Court in Xinjiang county.
Wang Mingsheng, 78, has been working odd-jobs in Qufu and sells vegetables to supplement his monthly income of 600 yuan and a 220-yuan government pension, since retiring as a worker in a chemical factory. None of his five daughters and two sons want to live with him and his wife, he said.
“I don’t think they are unfilial but they have their own lives and won’t be able to take care of two old people,” Wang said as he rested on the sidewalk outside the Temple of Confucius. “If children can afford it and don’t take care of their old parents, then they should be punished by the law.”
Most amendments in China’s law discuss development of community elder-care services in prosperous, coastal regions, said Zhang Xiaoyi, vice-dean of Shanghai Jiaotong University’s School of International and Public Affairs. That doesn’t help the old left behind in rural areas, where health-care facilities are also inferior, as children seek jobs in cities, she said.
“The problem of how to help the rural elderly is still a loophole in the design of our existing system,” said Zhang, who advises the Shanghai government on aging issues. “One ideal solution would be if migrant children who have done well in the cities could then take their parents to live with them.”
In rural China, grandparents care for 38 percent of children younger than 5 whose parents have gone to work in cities, according to a report last year published by the United Nations Population Fund in New York.
China and other governments will also have to adapt their health-care systems with improving life expectancy, said Nick Beckett, a Beijing-based managing partner at law firm CMS. The average Chinese lived until 74.8 years of age in 2010, rising from 68.6 in 1990, the National Bureau of Statistics said in September.
The government will introduce favorable policies that include boosting the number of beds in care facilities to 30 per 1,000 elderly persons by 2015, from 20 currently, Minister for Civil Affairs Li Liguo told reporters at the National People’s Congress in Beijing on March 5.
The growth in the past 15 years that has turned China into the world’s second-largest economy has also made 2,500-year-old advice irrelevant, said Nankai University’s Yuan, whose 94-year-old father is cared for by his retired sister in western Xinjiang province, a seven-hour flight from where he’s based.
“Confucius once said ‘During your parents’ lifetime, do not journey afar,’” said Yuan. “This is no longer possible in modern Chinese society because the consequence of not journeying afar may be to give up one’s career development.”