The celebration of the Spring Festival is traditionally a time for families to come together. The concept of respecting the elderly, known as filial piety, is deeply rooted in Chinese culture. Nevertheless, a set of new amendments to Chinese law will give elderly citizens the right to drag their relatives to court, if they feel neglected.
Is there really a need for such a law in Confucius’ homeland, where filial piety is seen as one of the cornerstones in the building of the much longed-for harmonious society? How does taking care of aged relatives comply with a modern society influenced by increasing mobility, urbanization and three decades of one-child policy?
New rules support old traditions
“I think the rights of the elderly should be protected. It is a time-honored tradition for Chinese people to be loyal to their country and to show filial affection for their parents,” says Sha Yunming, who is out for a walk in Beijing with her fellow retiree, Jiang Xiuying, when gbtimes’ reporters meet her.
The two ladies, who are both 75 years old, do not see a conflict between the old traditions and the new legislation. The new law text was passed by China’s National People’s Congress on December 28 last year and will officially become effective on July 1, 2013.
“The new rules stipulate some of the important social ethics. The article also reminds young people of their duty. In many cases, young men would ignore their parents while they are busy with work or just go out to travel when they have free time. The article makes visits obligatory for them,” Jiang Xiuying says.
In the newly approved amendment to the country’s Law on Protection of the Rights and Interests of the Elderly it is stated that “family members who live separately from the elderly should visit them often”. The law text does not explain exactly how regularly “often” is, though.
“Those who live near their parents should pay a visit once in one or two weeks. Those who are living or working far away may go back home on occasions like the Spring Festival or other festivals. Anyway, we should visit our parents as often as we can,” says Wang Siji. She is 33 years old and works for a foreign enterprise in China.
Great distances, great challenges
According to the UN report “World Population Ageing: 1950 – 2050” just over 10 per cent of the Chinese population is aged 60 or above. The report forecasts that 19.5 per cent of the Chinese will be of that age by 2025 and 29 per cent of the Chinese will be 60 or more when we reach 2050.
China’s population is not only greying rapidly, the society has also been undergoing tremendous changes during the last few decades. Family planning policies have limited most couples to having only one child and the development of the Chinese economy and labor market has made many a Chinese migrate from the countryside to work in the big cities.
All these changes cannot but leave their marks on the family patterns, one of the results being that many of China’s elderly live alone.
Whilst many Chinese would like to go home to visit their parents or grandparents on a regular basis, it is not always practically possible.
“I’d like to visit my parents once a month. But my work and financial situation don’t allow me to do so. So I usually go back home to visit my parents twice a year,” says 38-year-old migrant worker in Beijing, Lu Beiwei.
Despite his practical and financial difficulties to get home to visit his aged parents, he also agrees with the new law that will make it obligatory to visit elderly relatives.
“I think that we migrant workers should go home and visit our parents for the Spring Festival. We should be willing to do so and it’s also our duty. It’s by no means an easy task to bring up children, so we should go home and take care of our parents,” he says and adds that the sons and daughters have a responsibility to visit their parents and take care of them, while the state should make sure that elderly citizens get by financially by granting them a pension.
Only few have a pension
The majority of Chinese do not have a pension, though. Instead, they are dependent on financial support from their offspring.
Beijing Times quotes Du Peng, director of Research Institute of Gerontology at Renmin University of China, as saying that 24.1 per cent of the Chinese senior citizens rely on their pensions. 40.7 per cent of the elderly in the Institute’s survey were cared for by their families or relatives, as of 2010.
Back in Beijing, both Jiang Xiuying and Sha Yunming are lucky to receive pension money.
“We made great contributions to the society and the country when we were young with low salaries. So the government should grant us with pensions. It is also part of the social welfare,” Jiang Xiuying says, and Sha Yunming supplements: “It has been a Chinese tradition to bring up children for the purpose of being looked after in old age. But we have pensions, so we simply want our children to come home to visit us. However, the situation is quite different in rural areas. The elderly can’t earn a living by themselves or don’t have pensions, they do need their sons or daughters’ financial support,” she adds and gives the word to her friend again.
“Money may be necessary for those elderly who are ill or in financial difficulties, but not for people like both of us who have pensions,” says Jiang Xiuying and goes on: “We only hope that our children go back home to visit us and chat with us. We don’t need them to help us do household chores. When they don’t have time to come back home, they can just make a phone call and say hello to their parents.”