China’s gray peril

Old ways fail the new army of elderly

by Lijia Macleod

BEIJING — Xue Aiying, a 65-year-old retired worker from Nanjing, used to go to Bailuzhou Park every morning to practice Falun Gong before the sect was outlawed in July last year. “I didn’t know what to do with myself after I retired,” she explains. “I felt lonely and empty before I joined Falun Gong.”

Xue is just one of an estimated 2 million followers of Falun Gong, which combines breathing exercises with Taoist and Buddhist elements. Now Xue’s children are encouraging her to take up “yangkou” dancing instead, originally a harvest celebration dance but today a popular form of exercise among the elderly.

The crackdown on Falun Gong has highlighted the plight of China’s elderly people, who make up 60 percent of the sect’s followers. “Most of the aging population have low income and poor health and get little respect. This makes them vulnerable to new religions like Falun Gong,” said sociologist Xu Xixiang, of China’s Ethics Association.

In a nation experiencing a bewildering pace of change on many fronts, one of the most striking transformations can be seen in China’s demographics. The country is growing older faster than any society in history. This year, when China formally becomes an “aging society’ according to U.N. standards, over 10 percent of the population, or 129 million Chinese citizens, will be over 60, constituting the largest group of elderly people in the world.

Among the greatest achievements of the Chinese Communist Party, a notorious gerontocracy itself, has been the lengthening of the nation’s average life expectancy from a mere 35 years in 1949 to the current 70. Add to this the successful implementation of one-child family-planning policies, rising living standards and improving health care, and it becomes clear that within a very short period China has changed from a country of high fertility and a soaring population-growth rate to its opposite. Yet, unlike some developed countries, it must face these challenges without adequate financial resources.

“Apart from the high growth rate, what makes it hard for China to cope with an aging population is that we are still a developing country,” explained population expert Xu Li from the China Academy of Social Sciences, “whereas most Western countries became rich before being hit by the gray tide.”

When Japan was classified by the United Nations as an “aging society” in 1970, its annual per capita income had already reached $1,689. As of 2000, China’s per capita income is still only $800 per annum. It is therefore not surprising that social provisions for the nation’s elderly remain appallingly inadequate.

For centuries, the traditional Confucian value of filial piety taught children the obligation of respecting older people and looking after their parents. Now, however, the diminished influence of Confucianism, smaller family size (more and more so-called 4-2-1 families, meaning four grandparents, two parents and one child), and the generally faster pace of life, mean that many of the old will end their days in retirement homes. This may be accepted practice in the West, but in Asia it remains an unusual last resort.

“When I’m no longer mobile, I would prefer an old people’s home to my own,” says Xue, a widow who lives with her son’s family high in an apartment block that has no elevators. Once, she claims, she nearly went out of her mind when illness forced her to stay in bed. “Everyone had gone to work or school. I didn’t speak to anyone for a whole day.” She hopes that the strong rhythms and cymbals of yangkou dancing could be the answer, since she is determined to keep fit. It means fun, too: Some of Xue’s friends enliven their nightly dance session with colorful traditional costumes and feather fans.

The ultimate last resort for growing numbers of elderly Chinese may be institutions like the Songtang, or Pine Tree Hall, Hospice (the pine is a symbol of longevity). Located in southeast Beijing, Songtang is the first hospice to open in China, although it also functions as an old people’s home. Dr. Li Wei, once a barefoot rural doctor, founded Songtang in 1991 with a family inheritance. He was inspired to start a hospice to help the elderly when nursing a dying intellectual who had been exiled to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution. From the beginning, the hospice has been struggling to survive, relying mainly on donations and Li’s personal resources.

“The government didn’t give us a penny, since the place is nongovernmental,” Li said. “But at least we are now allowed to exist, and there is an increasing demand for such places.”

Despite the financial strain, Li strives to make the hospice a pleasant environment. Among other things, he raises songbirds and pigeons. At present, the hospice houses over 200 patients. Zhao Shuchun, a 70-year-old retired worker, had lived alone in a modern apartment block before suffering a major stroke in spring 1997. His four children took him to a hospital, which saved his life but left him with large debts: The money-losing state-owned company he worked for was supposed to pay 70 percent of his 10,000 yuan medical costs, but simply did not have the money. When his children heard about Songtang, where charges were considerably lower, they quickly installed Zhao there.

Zhao sings its praises. “This is a great place,” he says. “Staying at home, I would be a burden to my family, as my children are all busy with their lives. Also, I would be lonely, but here, I have plenty of people to talk to. During the weekends, volunteers come to sing and dance for us, even foreigners. I’ve never met so many foreigners before!” he says with a big smile. On weekdays, he amuses himself by feeding the pigeons or playing Chinese chess.

Not everyone is as cheerful as Zhao. Right next door to him sits gloomy granny Yu Yinghua, a retired teacher who has not seen any of her three children for at least six months. They sent her to Songtang over a year ago after a stroke paralyzed her left side. At first they put her up in a more expensive private room. As soon as they realized her school would be unable to cover the costs, they not only downgraded her to the ordinary room she now shares with two other women, but also instructed the doctors to stop supplying medicine. Having lost the ability to speak, Yu can only express her bitterness on scraps of paper.

China currently has a very limited number of state-owned old people’s homes, which have traditionally cared for urban residents with no children of their own. Take Beijing. At the end of 1998, the capital’s 289 homes could accommodate only 9,924 people, or 0.6 percent of Beijing residents over 60. To increase capacity to 3 percent, the minimum standard in the West, China needs to invest at least $200 billion, according to the Ministry of Civil Affairs. The ministry has repeatedly pleaded with the public to invest in facilities catering for the elderly, but to little avail. The Beijing authorities have even drafted guidelines for investing in old people’s homes, offering incentives such as tax exemptions and reduced gas and electricity charges.

The harsh reality, however, is that it is tough to run an old people’s home as a profitable business. The recently founded Oriental Old People’s House in the eastern outskirts of Beijing soon found itself deeply in debt. At first, company president Qiao Xiuzhen tried to mortgage her assets in order to secure a bank loan, but was rejected. Qiao, a doctor of traditional Chinese medicine, had to sell her house and all her valuables and borrow money at high interest; the business took every penny she had made. At present, only a quarter of the home’s 400 beds are occupied. “Only if 300 beds are filled can we make a small profit,” says Qiao. She blames the low occupancy on the lack of publicity — which the home has no money to pay for — and wishes the government would step into the breach.

Fully aware that China cannot afford a Western-style welfare state, the National People’s Congress passed a law protecting the rights and interests of the elderly in December 1996. Acknowledging the breakdown of traditional values, this law, the first of its kind in China, orders families to look after older members and prohibits neglect, slander or abuse of the elderly. Enforcement, however, has been far from satisfactory.

“Most old people are poorly educated or illiterate and simply do not know how to seek legal redress,” says Zhang Kai, a Beijing lawyer who works on issues related to the rights of the elderly. The son of a Fujian farmer, Zhang has offered free legal aid to dozens of old people over the past few years. “I can see my own old parents back home only once every few years,” he says. “I feel one of the ways I can fulfill my filial obligation is to help other elderly people.”

One recent case Zhang worked on involves 84-year-old Yang Guicheng from Tianjin. Widowed early, Yang raised her five children single-handedly. In 1985, when her second son returned from Xinjiang with his wife and two children, Yang let them stay with her. However, the whole family turned on her; they often refused to give her food and eventually drove her out. With Zhang’s help, Yang is fighting a legal battle against her son to get her house back. Her last wish is to die in her own home.

Zhang is not optimistic, however. Such cases are often viewed in China as “domestic matters,” with the courts tending to take a lenient view of the accused. Sadly, he says, cases of violations of old people’s rights are increasing. “Maybe it is because in a rapidly changing society, people become more selfish and more money-oriented,” he speculates.

Perhaps the most daunting aspect of China’s mushrooming elderly crisis is the lack of an established pension and security system. Urban workers used to rely on their work units for pensions, a benefit never enjoyed by the rural residents who make up over 70 percent of China’s population. But in recent years, state-owned enterprises — newly thrust into the marketplace — have been increasingly unable to shoulder the growing burden of retirees. One model currently being tested requires the government, employers and employees to contribute a certain proportion each to a “basic pension insurance fund.” In this way, the responsibility is shared.

“From now on, China’s young people have to learn to save for their old age,” warns Xu Li, “There will be a great leap in the aging population in the next 25 years or so. We’d better move quickly, or China may find itself in a perilous situation no nation has never encountered before.”

By 2040, one out of every four Chinese will be a senior citizen. Every two Chinese in employment will be working to support one elderly person in the gray army of 374 million people whose future welfare remains in grave doubt. Caring for them has become a critical issue.