With fading of centuries-old tradition, Chinese elderly can no longer depend on their children for care

By Zhang Yiqian Source:Global Times Published: 2017/4/27 18:43:41

○ The story of a father who has threatened to disown his daughter after she moved permanently to the US has gone viral on the Internet

○ For centuries, Chinese people followed the concept of "raising a child to care for you in old age." But in recent years, this concept has come under pressure

○ There are still many gaps in the government's old-age pension and care system. The current system, both public and private, cannot meet the needs of the growing elderly population

An elderly woman takes medicine at a care home in Beijing. Photo: Li Hao/GT

Zhang Yong has given his only child an ultimatum, either she comes home from the US, or he will disown her. 

But his threat hasn't had much effect. His daughter Zhang Li hasn't contacted him for two weeks now. Zhang Yong has started to feel that the biggest mistake he ever made was sending his daughter abroad.

In 2006, when Zhang Li graduated high school, her parents sold a house in Shenzhen, South China's Guangdong Province to send her abroad for university. After graduation, Zhang Li found a job in the US against her parents' wishes. Several months ago, Zhang Li called home saying she wants to stay in the US and marry her local boyfriend.

Zhang Yong felt angry and troubled, refusing to accept her decision to marry a foreigner and live abroad. He worries that if she stays in the US, he might never see her again.

"It's nice for children to have their dreams, but they need to think of their parents. My biggest mistake was sending her abroad for school," Zhang Yong said.

He says that he and his wife are unwilling to move to the US, as they doubt that they will be able to get used to the climate and new environment, which means that they may well have to live apart from their only child in their old age, with no relative to look after them.

This family's story aroused widespread discussion online, becoming one of the most popular news topics on Sina Weibo. This piece of news, as personal as it is to this family, touched on one of the most important issues facing a society going through rapid changes, what are our responsibilities to our elderly family members?


Tradition meets modernity

The concept of "raising a child to care for you in old age" was never a formal law, but has existed for centuries.

About 1,000 years ago, Chen Yuanliang, a writer in the Song Dynasty (960-1279) developed this concept. In line with traditional Confucian thought, the concept passed on from generation to generation.

But today, this tradition is losing ground to a new conception of familial relationships in the face of China's rapid development.

As in Zhang's case, many have found their children no longer want to live in their hometowns. While many netizens were sympathetic with the parents, many others also argued that it's selfish for parents to demand their child throw away their dreams just to take care of them.

Furthermore, Zhang's case demonstrates that because of the decades-long one-child policy, Chinese children face more pressure to take care of their parents than ever before. When grown, one child faces having four grandparents and two parents to take care of and no sibling with which they can share the burden.

In 2016, China Youth Daily conducted a multiple-choice online survey on "raising a child to care for you in old age."

Out of the 2,002 respondents, 47% said they support this concept, 38.5% said they will consider it, while 39.8% said they don't and 64.4% believe this mode is gradually fading.

When talking about what they will do when they are elderly, 57.7% said they would choose to live with a partner or alone, 47.8% said they will choose to receive community-based care and 44% will live at a home, while only 28.1% say they want to live with their children.

The data shows a changing reality and mindset. Nowadays, it is more and more difficult for children to stay and care for their parents in their old age.

Sarah Li, who works in Beijing, said her mother has been trying to get her to move closer to her hometown in East China's Anhui Province since she left high school. She listened to her mom and went to a university in Anhui, but when her mother tried to a get her work close to home after graduation, she refused. Instead, she went abroad to get a master's degree and then went to work in Beijing.

She could not handle being stuck in a small city forever, she said. Even though her mom never explicitly said she wanted her to stay near home, the issue comes up every once in a while when her mother asks when she wants to start thinking about moving back.

A senior citizen walks by himself at a nursing home. Photo: Li Hao/GT

Loopholes in the social care system

China has a huge number of senior citizens, who together are a heavy burden on the government's wallet.

National Bureau of Statistics' data shows that in 2016, there were over 210 million people in China aged over 60. The bureau estimates that by 2030, there will be over 300 million elderly people in China. Therefore, any small changes in the social system or news published related to the issue can cause significant upheaval.

Official rhetoric concerning elderly care has also been shifting away from emphasizing children caring for parents. Just 10 years ago, some members of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference have suggested the elderly "depend on their homes to provide for their old age." Later on, some projects were proposed in which the elderly would mortgage their house in return for cash which could be spent on care.

Shen Bing, a 28-year-old citizen who lives in Hangzhou, East China's Zhejiang Province said even though her parents back home in Nanjing, East China's Jiangsu Province never talk about their twilight years, she feels worried.

"My parents often say that when they get old, if I'm not around, they'll just go to a nursing home," she said. But she is unsure whether that's realistic, since there are far more elderly than places in homes at the moment. 

Huang Zhiling, an economist at the China Construction Bank, wrote for news portal Sina Finance that building an elderly care system entirely dependent on government welfare is "unrealistic." He argues that there are too many old people for the government to take care of.

In fact, starting in 2010, the government started a discussion on whether to push back the retirement age. The news went viral and many protested against it, but the policy only reflected the harsh reality that the government will not pay for universal elderly care.

It's not just public money for elder care that is lacking, as private sector capacity is insufficient also. Huang wrote that the elderly care industry is not prepared for the coming aging society and can only provide services for a few. In 2012, there were only enough elderly care homes nationwide to provide for 3 million seniors, which amounts to about 21 beds for every 1,000 elderly people. By 2014, the number had only increased to 25 beds per every 1,000 elderly.

In 2016, Cuncaocunhui, a top-notch elderly care center located in a residential community in Haikou, capital of South China's Hainan Province, was shut down for three months due to protesting locals. Residents were unhappy about having that many old people living in their community, saying that it's bad luck to have so many people dying nearby.

Under such circumstances, it is understandable that the elderly see little other choice than depending on their children.

Zhang Yong and his daughter's "cold war" hasn't stopped yet. He doesn't see how this conflict will be resolved anytime soon. "Does she still regard me as her father?" he wondered.
Newspaper headline: Empty nest

Posted in: IN-DEPTH

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