Delaying the retirement age has led to intense social conflict in several European countries. Can China handle this explosive issue smoothly? The Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security has signaled that it will start being more flexible about the retirement age late this year, already resulting in an enormous outcry from the public.
Responses from online polling have been mostly negative. It is primarily opposed by ordinary salary earners who would like to take out their pension earlier and young people who are worried about being further squeezed out of job opportunities. These are all legitimate concerns.
But it is clear China is becoming increasingly burdened by an aging population, a reality that society has to face. The idea of a flexible retirement age is not the whim of a special interest group.
The average life expectancy in China is 73, eight years longer than India. Of the countries with an average life expectancy of over 70, China's retirement age is among the lowest, with women retiring at 50 if they work for an enterprise (and 55 if they work in the public sector.) This is rare in modern countries.
Early retirement means more people relying on social security. China set the early retirement age at the time when the average life expectancy was just above 50. Moreover, when the pension system was first established, few urban residents were eligible to apply for a pension.
But it is a different situation now. More people are applying for pensions and they can take pensions for more years. Meanwhile, young people are postponing the age at which they get a job. As a result, the retiree population is expanding, overwhelming the newly employed every year.
The Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security has touched a public nerve with its proposal. The ministry is now the target of anger and disappointment. But it is better than overspending and ruining the future of our children.
Some eurozone members are betting on debts and outside aid to keep their social security network going. But for China, with the world's largest population, its social welfare can only be created by its own citizens. There is a quickly growing school of thought in China that sees the high welfare benefits of the West as the standard. This is out of touch with China's current social reality.
It is good to include public welfare as the core object of social progress. But the idea of a great welfare leap forward is a toxic one.
If China gets stuck in a debt crisis similar to that engulfing some eurozone members, there will be no union to bail out China.
We hope China's pension plan can be implemented with less confrontation and struggle.