Mon, Feb 27, 2017 - Page 7 News List

‘Gray wall of China’: the town at the front line of a looming aging crisis

In Rudong County, China, where a third of the population is over 60, a university for older people is one solution to changing demographics. It has been dubbed the ‘gray wall of China,’ a demographic shift so big you can almost see it from space

By Tom Phillips  /  The Guardian, RUDONG COUNTY, China

Illustration: Yusha

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.

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