The world’s most populous country is getting old. Plummeting birthrates, the result of the much-loathed one-child policy and dramatically improved life expectancy mean that by 2050 more than a quarter of China’s population — almost 500 million people — will be over 65.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the most geriatric city in China, Rudong County, where as many as 30 percent of the 1 million inhabitants are over 60.
This is a place from the future, a city that many aging Western nations could learn from, with its proliferating retirement homes, its jobs for older workers and, yes, its University of the Aged.
On a dull Tuesday morning dozens of older people have gathered in a school building to play a stirring rendition of Beethoven’s Ninth.
“We come here for happiness and joy,” says Yu Bing, a sprightly 72-year-old who is among the silver-haired students in classroom 301 using Chinese hulusi (葫蘆絲) flutes to perform the 19th-century symphony.
Yu, a retired doctor who lives nearby with her 80-year-old husband, Zhang Fanshen, is one of about 570 students at the university, a government-funded center that offers the region’s elderly people classes in everything from Latin dance steps and literature to how to use smartphones.
“Even though we’re not young in age, we are happy,” says the septuagenarian, whose flute lessons are part of a packed weekly schedule of social activities that also includes dawn dancing and percussion sessions, calligraphy classes and painting workshops. “There’s so much to do — we enjoy life here.”
The University of the Aged is on the front line in a fight against one of the most dramatic and potentially destabilizing problems facing modern China: A looming demographic crisis that experts believe will have major implications for everything from the well-being of hundreds of millions of people, to the Chinese Communist Party’s ability to hold on to power and even the prospects for world peace.
Wang Feng (王豐), a University of California, Irvine academic who is recognized as one of the leading experts on Chinese demographics, said the combination of these trends would place a monumental strain on the nation’s resources in the coming years and had the potential to radically alter its social, economic and political landscape.
China is not the only country bracing for a severe aging crunch, but Wang says a potent mixture of challenges mean its situation is particularly daunting. “It’s massive, it is unique and it takes place in the most populous country in the world.”
For a glimpse of China’s elderly future, drive two hours north from Shanghai to Rudong, a sleepy rural backwater in Jiangsu Province where the aging crisis has already arrived.
Perched on the country’s eastern coastline, near to where the Yangtze disgorges its murky waters into the East China Sea, Rudong is the grayest corner of the rapidly aging nation. Retirement homes are springing up across the county to cater for its growing ranks of elderly people — while secondary schools shut for a lack of young people.
The explanation for Rudong’s premature aging crisis lies in that it was an early testing ground for the one-child policy.
Draconian family planning regulations came into force in Rudong in the 1960s, long before they were rolled out across China, in 1980, in an effort to avoid what the country’s rulers believed would be a calamitous explosion in the size of its population.
This, combined with many young natives not returning after university, has meant that Rudong’s population has been shrinking for almost two decades.
Image-conscious local officials shrugged off the suggestion that their town was grappling with any kind of aging crisis.
“We don’t feel it is a big problem,” said Miao Rumei (繆汝梅), 75, the University of the Aged’s deputy head. “We haven’t felt we are lacking a workforce.”
However, Chen Youhua (陳友華), a Nanjing University sociologist who was born and raised in Rudong, said the problems caused by his hometown’s skewed population were all too real.
The soaring number of pensioners has placed “massive pressure” on Rudong’s social services, Chen said.
Meanwhile, its economy is suffering from a palpable labor shortage, with businesses struggling to find staff.
Rudong’s aging crisis is very apparent to visitors. Almost as striking as the lack of young faces on its subdued streets is the omnipresence of senior citizens who can be seen tending to fields, staffing shops, driving taxis or, like 72-year-old Ge Fangping (葛方平), giving lessons at the University of the Aged.
“Old people can’t stand loneliness,” says Ge, an elegant multi-instrumentalist who gives weekly music classes with his erhu (二胡), a two-stringed Chinese fiddle on which he teaches Chinese standards such as the Butterfly Lovers.
Ge, who is both a teacher and a student at the university, hopes to give something back to society while also occupying his autumn years with calligraphy and Chinese literature classes.
“After I came here, I felt hope again. I didn’t feel old any more,” says Ge, who has worked at the university for almost a decade and lives nearby with his 54-year-old son.
At the university — where students pay just 80 yuan (US$11.64) a term — students and staff say they are content with the government’s efforts to protect China’s pensioners.
“The government and the party are taking good care of the elderly,” Yu said as local officials who were offering a tour of the three-floor facility looked on.
Yang Xingzhang (楊興章), 78, the university’s head, said decades of unprecedented economic development had transformed life in Rudong and meant its entire population was far better off than in the past.
“It’s impossible to describe how big the changes have been and how good things are now,” Yang said.
Miao dismissed the idea that the one-child policy was a major demographic blunder for which his county was now paying a price.
“The happiness of the elderly isn’t defined by the number of children people have,” he said. “In the olden days there was a saying: ‘Raise children to look after you in old age.’ However, these days we have a very good social insurance system, so nobody thinks about whether family planning was a mistake.”
The consequences of China’s looming aging population will be felt far beyond the country’s borders.
Mark Haas, a political scientist from Pennsylvania’s Duquesne University, believes the unfolding drama is likely to have a global impact.
Haas’ argument, which he calls the “geriatric peace,” is that as spending on welfare for elderly people skyrockets, Beijing, which has spent trillions of US dollars to build itself into a military powerhouse, will be forced to slash its defense budget.
“They don’t have to make that choice, but you are going to have hundreds of millions of poor seniors. That creates a lot of political pressure, even in a non-democracy like China. It also creates moral pressure,” Haas said.
One likely result of this, the political scientist says, is that as China grows older it will become less able and therefore less likely to attempt any military challenge to the US.
This is good, “assuming people like peace,” Haas said.
He said there was also evidence that older people were more predisposed to peace, bolstering the theory that China’s aging crisis could have some benefits.
China’s silver tsunami might help prevent a third world war, but there will also be a very real human cost.
Wang said the country’s unequal pension system and patchy, underdeveloped healthcare network meant that “as in every society, the less privileged, the more vulnerable are going to be hit the hardest.”
Michael Phillips, a Shanghai-based psychiatrist, said China needed to brace for a severe healthcare crisis as authorities struggled to offer adequate support to its growing army of elderly.
Phillips, who works at the city’s Jiao Tong University, said the most daunting prospect was dementia.
“China is in for trouble, big trouble,” he said of the millions of dementia patients who will need caring for over the coming decades. “It’s a tidal wave that is coming down the pipe. I see a lot of people doing studies on how many [people with dementia] we have, but what about providing services for them?”
A glimpse of such difficulties can be seen at the Dingdian retirement home on the rural outskirts of Rudong.
The privately run home, a dilapidated cluster of low-rise dormitories centered around a damp communal dining area, was set up in 2012 by an evangelical Christian, Jiang Buying, and houses 55 senior citizens aged 62 to 101.
A bright red Christian cross hangs from one wall while another features a poster of Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) and the slogan: “Achieve national prosperity, revitalize the nation, realize people’s happiness.”
Jiang, whose 87-year-old mother is among the home’s residents, said she had been shocked at how many of Rudong’s rural poor had been forced to fend for themselves in old age because their children had migrated or were too busy to care for them.
Jiang, 60, said about a third of her residents suffered from severe physical or mental impairments, including dementia, meaning they required constant care.
Before she took them in, many had been living at home in almost total isolation.
“The hardest thing for them about living at home as the loneliness and lack of care. They felt depressed because their children had all gone off to work,” she said.
Jiang said local authorities had given her 87,000 yuan to help expand the home, whose white-coated staff offer regular meals and smiles, but only rudimentary medical care.
However, she has struggled to keep the business afloat, charging monthly fees of between 1,000 and 1,300 yuan depending on the level of care needed.
Sheng Yunfeng, a chain-smoking 83-year-old, moved to the home three years ago with his wife, who has since died. He had no pension to cover its fees so his son pays instead.
Sheng said he enjoyed the camaraderie of living with other pensioners, who wiled away their days watching Ming Dynasty period dramas on television and discussing their absent children.
“Here we play cards. It’s fun,” he said, before serenading his fellow residents with a lengthy and entirely out-of-tune performance on his erhu.
Jiang, whose 37-year-old son also helps care for Rudong’s older people, said she did not blame the government for being restricted to having one child.
“Rudong was the pilot city. We had no choice,” she said.
However, she did fear for her future and said she had founded her roadside retirement home partly out of the hope that one day someone might help her through the twilight of her life.
“I thought: One day I’m going to get old too,” she said. “What will I do if there is nobody to take care of me?”
Additional reporting by Christy Yao
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