Why China Is Ordering Children to Visit Parents

An amended law encouraging adult children to visit their parents went into effect on Monday in China. This legislative action can be seen to reflect the changes that rapid social and economic transformation are having on a country with a Confucian legacy of “filial piety” (孝)—a seemingly fading cultural institution that has long reinforced good conduct towards parents. From the New York Times:

[…T]hat officials felt the need to make filial duty a legal matter is a reflection of the monumental changes taking place throughout Chinese society.

Many aging parents in China, as in other industrialized nations, complain these days about not seeing their children enough. And the children say the stresses of daily life, especially in the rapidly expanding cities, prevent them from carving out time for their parents.

“China’s economy is flourishing, and lots of young people have moved away to the cities and away from their aging parents in villages,” Dang Janwu, vice director of the China Research Center on Aging, said in a telephone interview on Tuesday. “This is one of the consequences of China’s urbanization. The social welfare system can answer to material needs of the elders, but when it comes to the spiritual needs, a law like this becomes very necessary.”

Mr. Dang said the law had already been successful in prompting significant discussion of the issue. [Source]

The law also seeks to address an impending demographic dilemma that has been exacerbated by the one-child policy—a massive and growing elderly population that recent studies have shown are already facing a bleak picture. Bloomberg Business week explains how the “Visit the Elderly” law is a reaction—however incomplete—to the effects of the one-child policy:

As odd as it seems for a government to step in and regulate relationships within the family, in China there’s nothing unusual about the new law. After all, this is a country whose government has been mandating for decades the number of children per family. Indeed, it’s because of the success of the One Child Policy that Chinese officials now feel the need to implement the new Visit the Elderly law. With government-provided assistance very limited, seniors in China largely depend on their families to care for them in their golden years. Hence the risk from the One Child Policy: Without brothers and sisters to pick up the slack, all it takes is one unfilial child for the system to break down.

The law that went into effect on July 1 is one response, but it won’t be enough to address the concerns among people who study China’s population trends that the country will grow old before it grows rich. China’s National Committee on Aging estimates that the number of people 60 years and older will rise to 487 million four decades from now, up from 185 million in 2011. “China’s aging problem is at a scale and speed not comparable with anywhere else in the world,” Yuan Xin, director of Nankai University’s Aging Development Strategy Research Center in Tianjin, and a member of an advisory committee on the new rule, told Bloomberg News. [Source]

In their coverage of Ms. Chu, an elderly Wuxi woman who brought a case against her daughter just after the new amendment came into effect, Bloomberg notes that China’s looming pension problem may have partly inspired the legislation:

[…T]he scale of the looming problem in China makes the pension shortfalls in the U.S. and Europe Union seem trivial. In 2012, Zhu Yong, deputy director of the Chinese government’s National Committee on Aging, told a Beijing conference on pension reform that in 2013 the number of Chinese over age 60 would exceed 200 million; it would peak in 2050 at 483 million.

In China’s traditional agrarian culture, those aging relatives would live with, and be supported by, their children. But the country’s modernizing economy means children are moving far from their parents to work. Moreover, thanks in large part to population-control policies, Zhu estimates that China’s workforce will shrink to 713 million by 2050, down 24.2 percent from 2011, leaving fewer children to support aging parents. This demographic crunch is creating something relatively new in China: empty-nesters.

In other words, the number of households containing parents whose adult children have moved out is growing. According to data gathered by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, in 2011 empty nests accounted for 49.7 percent of urban households and 38.7 percent of rural households. This number will increase as China’s population ages, reaching more than 54 percent of all elderly households in 2050, says Zhu Yong.

China is woefully under-prepared for this shift.[…] [Source]

In another piece covering the Ms. Chu case, in which her daughter and son-in-law were issued court warnings of fines or possible detention if they didn’t begin visiting regularly, the Wall Street Journal notes that many legal professionals are skeptical of the efficacy of a law, due to both China’s current economic conditions and to the fact that the law lacks explicit redress:

While praising the sentiment behind the law, critics have argued that few of the country’s vast population of migrant workers could afford to travel home often and said it was unlikely parents would sue their children in any event.

“The intention is good, but an unenforceable law seems like mixing law and ethics,” wrote popular newspaper columnist and social commentator Yao Bo, who writes under the pen name Wuyue Sanren.

[…]“[The new law] is more aimed at advocacy and encouragement,” said Song Ci, a Tianjin-based lawyer. “There isn’t any concrete punishment for people who break it.”

China’s legal system, unlike that of U.S., is not bound by precedent, Ms. Song noted, so the impact of this first case is likely to be limited. In a report on Tuesday, the state-run English-language China Daily said the Wuxi hearing had been held “to highlight the implementation of the law.” [Source]

Also see prior CDT coverage of the elderly, demographics, and the one-child policy.


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