Why China Is Ordering Adult Children to Visit Their Parents

A mother and daughter stroll in Shanghai as a Chinese law requiring people to visit elderly relatives takes effect Photograph by Peter Parks/AFP via Getty Images

Pay a visit to Grandma and Grandpa—or else they’ll see you in court. In China, a new law went into effect on Monday requiring people to care for their elderly parents, with provisions calling for children to see them regularly, or at least call on the phone. The law is intended “to protect the lawful rights and interests of parents aged 60 and older, and to carry on the Chinese virtue of filial piety,” the official China Daily newspaper reports, and the legislation gives seniors leverage to use on offspring. “Parents whose children live apart from them and fail to visit regularly can ask for mediation or file a lawsuit,” the newspaper says.

What if grown-up children don’t live nearby? The new law takes care of that, with a requirement for employers to allow workers time off from work to visit their elderly parents—although, as Bloomberg News reported when the amendments to the law passed last December, nothing in the legislation specifies 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.

As odd as it seems for a government to step in and regulate relationships within the family, in China there’s nothing unusual about the new law. After all, this is a country whose government has been mandating for decades the number of children per family. Indeed, it’s because of the success of the One Child Policy that Chinese officials now feel the need to implement the new Visit the Elderly law. With government-provided assistance very limited, seniors in China largely depend on their families to care for them in their golden years. Hence the risk from the One Child Policy: Without brothers and sisters to pick up the slack, all it takes is one unfilial child for the system to break down.

The law that went into effect on July 1 is one response, but it won’t be enough to address the concerns among people who study China’s population trends that the country will grow old before it grows rich. China’s National Committee on Aging estimates that the number of people 60 years and older will rise to 487 million four decades from now, up from 185 million in 2011. “China’s aging problem is at a scale and speed not comparable with anywhere else in the world,” 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, told Bloomberg News.

The tipping point for China’s demographic crisis may have already arrived. As I wrote in a recent story about manufacturing in the traditional export hubs on China’s coast, the number of working-age Chinese last year fell by 3.45 million, to 937.27 million, according to the National Bureau of Statistics. Not a big drop. but it marked the first fall in working-age population and marks “the start of a trend expected to accelerate in the next two decades,” the Hong Kong-based China Labour Bulletin wrote in a June 11 report. “China no longer has an inexhaustible supply of young workers.”

Does that mean the One Child Policy’s days are numbered? Some people think so. As Christina Larson wrote recently, the average Chinese lived until 74.8 years of age in 2010, rising from 68.6 in 1990. By 2050, one in three people in China is expected to be age 60 or over. James Liang, a professor at the Stanford School of Business and Peking University, believes China is in danger of becoming a graying society with a shrinking population of young people who can contribute entrepreneurial sparks to the economy. “If China maintains its current total average fertility rate, its demographic structure diagram by 2040 will be nearly the replica of that of Japan today,” Liang wrote last year in Caixin magazine. “The series of issues that Japanese society is facing today”—from rising health-care costs to lack of entrepreneurial mojo—”are likely to befall” China.

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