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Weeks ago, a middle-age resident lit a fire at his staying place—a 450-bed nursing home occupied by 283 mostly elderly patients in Heilongjiang province, south-eastern China, killing himself and ten elderly patients.

Like other common cases in China, where certain kinds of social problems would remain unattended to until tragedies happen and death rolls arise, issues of nursing facilities and appropriate care services for the elderly seldom come into the public’s attention before the aforementioned fire broke out.

But neither of these issues can afford to be neglected, especially for a country where four 194 million people—over 14 percent of its population—were over 60 last year and the figure will increase to 220 million by the time of 2015.

The fact is, while developed countries like Japan, Italy, Germany were once thought to be facing the toughest aging population problems around the world, China has “caught up with” the demographic trend that is now a major headache for the Chinese government.

“The most difficult thing for China is that it will face the problem within the next 40 years,” Yuan Xin, a professor and director of the Aging Development Strategy Research Center at Nankai University in Tianjin, told The New York Times last year. According to current projections, the proportion of China’s elderly will rocket to one-third of its 1.5 billion-population within 40 years.

However, while the scale of the elderly is rapidly expanding, the quantity as well as quality of relevant infrastructures and care services for them has not.

According to the Ministry of Civil Affairs, there were 44,304 elderly service agencies, offering more than 4 million beds; in other words, only around two percent of the elderly would be luckily enough to receive a bed in these agencies. In a report done by China Economic Weekly about the status quo of government-run nursing homes in Beijing, some of those institutions were so full that there were over 9000 people waiting for one bed, which would took more than ten years to meet all the demands.

Even if they succeed in getting into these service agencies, appropriate care is never fully guaranteed. On the contrary, extreme events resulting injuries and even deaths, including suicide, have occurred in nursing homes in recent years.

A widely-shared cause of these tragedies, which is also another urgent issue faced by the Chinese government when it comes to the aging population, is the lack of qualified caregivers for the elderly.

In the aforementioned fire, Zhang Shoulin, vice-chief of the local Ministry of Civil Affairs, admitted that “if there had been more people on duty, the casualties would have less.”  Statistically, Guo Ping, a researcher at the China Research Center on Aging, made an estimation that only about four to five percent of caregivers in Chinese nursing homes have accredited professional training, including physical and mental health care.

Much as the headache of its aging population is worsening, the government’s hands seem to be tied in tackling the derived social problems. While chances of setting up a comprehensive social security system in a foreseeable time, of expanding care services for the elderly and of making sure elderly people are appropriately catered to are slim, authorities have now turned to individuals for help, with the hope that in a country where filial piety and family ties are highly valued, one will and ought to be looked after by their offspring.

Whereas these traditional values seem to be drifting away in recent years, the Chinese government is determined to hold the trend and guarantee such Chinese virtue. At the beginning of July, China’s new “Elderly Rights Law” was officially enforced. The new regulation requires grown children to visit their aging parents “frequently” or they will be put behind bars.

The law is no kidding: while netizens are debating over whether the law is reasonable and practical, a Chinese woman and her husband have been ordered by a local court in Wuxi, eastern China, to visit the woman’s mother at least once every two months, and during at least two public holidays every year, making it the first application of the new regulation.

The verdict, however, has gotten on many netizens’ nerves. On Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter, complaints towards the current filial piety law even superseded discussions over the aging population problem itself. Some has pointed out the impracticality of the law as @刀币小吏 did, remarking that

“It should be regulated by culture and morality, why law? ‘Frequently visit home’ would mean once a day to some, once a week or even once a year to others. Staying at home for a minute, for a day or for a week can all be counted as ‘visiting parents’. How are these terms defined and how would they be enforced?” 

Others are more practical. User @kitty1330 did a quick calculation on the cost of “not violating the law”:

“Who doesn’t want to visit home frequently? [I am] 2000 miles away from home. Who doesn’t miss their parents? But sometimes it is just full of helplessness and sorrows. Setting aside the cost of taking a leave from work, just the two-way train tickets will cost 1000 yuan and 72 hours—and this does not even take train delays into considerations. Moreover, the chance of getting a ticket is ten percent as tickets are easily run out of. In that case, [I will need to] take a plane, which will cost 3000 yuan and it equals to my monthly salary.”

In the eyes of user @时间一秒江山一厘米, however, the newly enforced law is more than an individual trouble: “I think the government is shifting its responsibility. On one hand, you don’t allow us to have [more than one] baby; on the other hand, you require a child to provide for so many elderly people. This is just unreasonable

Ironically, while both the aging population issue and the regulation are centered around elderly people in the country, ongoing debates seldom focus their attention on the elderly themselves and ask what they really need. Perhaps this is why most of the netizens were shocked by the feedback from an elderly man, who, when asked about views on the regulation, replied that “Laws nowadays are totally nonsense. Which law does it break not vising us? [I will say] it is not getting married before 30 that violates the law and should receive sentences!”

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