As China’s population ages, its social safety net appears increasingly inadequate.
The New York Times reports: “Under a proposal submitted last Monday 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.”
Enforcing a return to filial piety is unlikely to fill the gap in care for China’s growing older population. With no national social security system, the pressure on families to care for their own elders is brutal, resulting in families splitting apart, and suicides among care givers and receivers alike.
My photo from Beijing, 2002
Although China’s suicide rate has fallen in recent decades, researcher Jun Jing believes, it is higher among old people than young people, an unusual pattern which he attributes to “social factors such as aging, lack of medical security and conflicts caused by large-scale demolitions,” especially the destruction of historic neighborhoods in China’s big cities — which causes family conflicts and crises of elder care.
In rural areas, higher suicide rates for women than for men also set China apart from most countries — although researchers believe the displacement of rural populations for factory jobs in the cities has actually eased the stress on many rural families (and reduced the access of many poor women to pesticides, the most common method of suicide).
A few years ago Jun Jing (a sociologist at Tsinghua University) published a fascinating, in-depth account of one family’s tragic history, including the suicide of its grandmother. They were a poor, multigenerational, multihousehold family – given the pseudonym Hao – that was displaced by the construction of the Three Gorges Dam in 1996. The grandparents were reluctant to move up to the mountains with the younger households. Jun Jing tells the story better than I can:
The elderly couple had no money to repair their house, and even less to build a new one on another location, so the younger generations of the Hao family decided to draw lots for which household should look after them and set aside a place for them to live. The lot fell to the third daughter-in-law, who although unwilling to be drawn, had to join in as representative of the third household (the third son had died some time before). So the two elderly people moved into the third house and were looked after by their third daughter-in-law with support from the other households. … Soon, Lü Quanxiu started saying that her daughterin-law’s place was not as comfortable as her old home and that she was not used to living high up on the mountain slopes, so endlessly urged her sons to repair her own house by the river because she said she wanted to return. The younger generations of the Hao family discussed the matter and decided that the expenses for the repair of their house should be shouldered by the third household, since the government’s compensation money given to the elderly couple had already been used up by the third daughter-in-law’s boy. …
Once again, the Hao family got together and decided that each house would look after the old couple in turn, and the household where they die would take responsibility for the burial. The places in the mountains where houses could be built were extremely scattered and far apart, so when the six households of the Hao family moved uphill they found that they could not live in the same place. They were allocated places by the authorities, and the two closest houses were several tens of metres apart. Every five days, the elderly couple would have to travel along a stone path in the new village to move between the households supporting them. Each stone step was about 40 centimetres high, so climbing up them was a physical torment for the elderly couple. Lü Quanxiu became extremely unhappy, and felt that to live in this way she might as well be a beggar, so she decided to go to her daughter’s house to live. After she had been living there for some time, people in the village started gossiping that, in fact, the households of the younger generations of the Hao family had been unable to make proper arrangements to look after the elderly couple. As soon as they heard this, the Hao family sent people to bring the old lady back on a bamboo pole, but they kept to the rotating method of supporting her and her husband. The elderly couple still had no real place of their own to live.
The old woman eventually committed suicide by jumping off a precipice, and her husband died of a brain hemorrhage four days after her funeral. A little while later, a grandson died after a truck accident left him seriously injured — and the family could not afford the $500 deposit required by the hospital to perform surgery. A granddaughter, born “outside the government’s family planning limit,” was sent to a remote mountain village to live out of sight of local inspectors; she died of hepatitis before she could be brought to the nearest doctor.
How did the villagers interpret her suicide?
Some people said that she was unwilling to continue being a burden to her children. Some said that when she realized that the issue of her care was creating conﬂict between the different generations, and particularly between the brothers’ wives, she completely lost heart and all interest in living. Others said that once the issue of the Hao family’s care of the two elderly people became a topic of public opinion in the village, the old lady felt that she had lost face and was unwilling to go on being the target of ridicule in the villagers’ criticisms of the Hao family.
China may be an economic powerhouse that has the whole world worried, but with its family house this out of order, the only certainty in its future is continued suffering and the risk of growing social instability. Efforts by the state to pressure families into caring for their elders merely illustrate the shallowness of its economic miracle.