Earlier this month China’s government took the extraordinary step of forcing children to visits their parents regularly by law. Author Zhang Lijia looks in The Guardian back on how filial relations in China have been changing dramatically over the past two decades. Action is needed, she writes.
When I called my mother and asked for her take on this mental need of elderly people, she said: “Old people often feel lonely and empty in their empty nests and sometimes feel abandoned if they hear nothing from their children.” She added that if her children can visit her when they can, call a couple of times every month and send her postcards when they travel – anything that makes her feel that they care – then her emotional needs are fulfilled.
My parents live alone in my hometown Nanjing. I myself have long migrated to the capital. Every year, I make the 1000km journey home (actually only four hours by the speed train) about half a dozen times, dutifully and slightly grudgingly (given half a chance, mother would nag me to find a husband and a proper job). Luckily, my sister and brother live nearby and pop over frequently.
In the next 10 to 15 years, people reaching old age will have fewer children as the family planning policy bears its fruit. The demographic trends will cause increasing constraints to the family-centreed old age support system. The government will have to invest vigorously to improve its poor social provisions for the elderly, building affordable retirement homes, expanding the rural pension programme and offering subsidised, if not free, medical care for the old. To combat China’s grave task of caring for the grey population, a joint effort by the government, society, family and individuals is needed. Otherwise, millions of old people will face a bleak future of poverty and loneliness.
Chinese have traditionally kept a close relationship with their hometown and their relatives, even when they moved away. But China’s labor force is changing very fast, as the China Weekly Hangout discussed on May 24, making visiting parents harder and harder. In this installment Dee Lee, of the NGO Inno in Guangzhou, who is running a workers’ hotline, mainly funded by big brands who want to keep an eye on working conditions, discusses those changes. Economist Heleen Mees, in New York, Sam Xu and Fons Tuinstra, of the China Speakers Bureau, ask him questions.
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