On the eve of the Lunar New Year festival, when Chinese flood train stations, bus terminals and airports to reunite with loved ones, one Chinese ministry is proposing that the government mandate closer families.
Under a proposal submitted on Monday last week by the Civil Affairs Ministry to China’s State Council, adult children would be required by law to regularly visit their elderly parents. If they do not, parents can sue them.
“Before, the courts did not accept this kind of lawsuit,” Wu Ming (吳明), a deputy inspector for the ministry, told the Legal Evening News this month. “But from now on, they will have to open up a case.”
The proposed amendment to a 1996 law on rights of the aged could be considered by the National People’s Congress when it conducts its annual session next month, but Jing Jun (景軍), a sociology professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing, said it was unlikely to pass.
“The national delegates are rational enough,” Jing said.
Other specialists on aging issues hope it sails into law.
“I know the person who drafted this provision and the first thing I told him was ‘Really nice move,’” said Ninie Wang (王燕妮), international director of the Gerontological Society of China, a Beijing-based nonprofit research group. “The whole society needs to start seeing that we need to give the elderly more care and attention.”
Concerns about how to care for China’s older people are growing as the nation’s population rapidly gets older, wealthier and more urbanized. China has the world’s third-highest elderly suicide rate, trailing only South Korea and Taiwan, according to Jing, who compiled figures from the World Health Organization and Taiwan. The -figures show a disturbing increase in suicides among the urban elderly in the past decade, a trend Jing blames partly on urbanization.
Once ensconced in intimate neighborhoods of courtyard houses and small lanes and surrounded by relatives and acquaintances, older people in China are increasingly moving into lonely high-rises and feeling forgotten, he said.
The notion that adult children should care for their aged parents is deeply ingrained in Chinese society. Offspring who shirk their responsibilities are met with scorn — and sometimes legal judgments. In Shandong Province, for instance, a court ordered three daughters to each pay their 80-year-old mother between 350 yuan (US$53) to 500 yuan a month, after the mother claimed that they ignored her and treated her like a burden, the Qing-dao Evening News reported last month.
However, China’s elderly population is growing rapidly, while the number of young adults is shrinking — a huge demographic shift that has been building for decades. While the elderly still make up a relatively small share of China’s population compared with some Western nations, demographers predict that the proportion of elderly will nearly double from 2008 to 2025. By 2050, they say, one in four Chinese will be 65 or older.
The Civil Affairs Ministry is not the only government agency rushing to the defense of older people. Last week, Jiangsu Province passed an ordinance -forbidding adult children from forcing their parents to give them money or goods, according to the Yangzi Evening News.
China terms adult children who lean too heavily on their parents kenlao zu — literally, people who nibble on their elders. The Chinese Research Center on Aging, a government-financed research center under the Civil Affairs Ministry, estimates that three in 10 adult Chinese remain partly or totally financially dependent on their parents.