The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
Visit Your Parents: It’s the Law

While Russia is goes after orphans, China moves in the opposite direction, passing new laws to protect the elderly from neglect by their children. A new law passed Friday requires adult children to pay regular visits to their elderly parents—or risk facing them in court. The FT reports:

State media say the new clause will allow elderly parents who feel neglected by their children to take them to court. The move comes as reports abound of elderly parents being abandoned or ignored by their children.

A rapidly developing China is facing increasing difficulty in caring for its ageing population. Three decades of market reforms have accelerated the break-up of the traditional extended family in China, and there are few affordable alternatives, such as retirement or care homes, for the elderly or others unable to live on their own.

The law is not as odd in a Chinese context as it might look to western eyes. Not only do China’s Confucian roots lay stress on the duties adult children owe their parents, but it is seen as the duty of the state to ensure that citizens behave correctly. Battered by factionalism, stung by a series of embarrassing scandals, the new leadership in Beijing is wrapping itself in a mantle of virtue; laws like this help make the point. As the Party searches for ways to legitimize its rule now that Marxism no longer really helps, rooting itself in Confucian ideas about good government is one of the most attractive options — especially as Confucian thought has a long history of supporting what might be called virtuous authoritarianism.

Concern over abandoned parents is real. Chinese society is rapidly changing, and many people are shocked and bewildered by the new society springing up around them. Many parents are aging alone without a lot of attention and care from adult children. (And state services for the elderly are generally primitive and China lacks anything like an effective Social Security program.)

Some Chinese observers do blame the plight of the elderly on a plague of materialistic and ungrateful kids, but the rapid change in social conditions is the real problem here. Tens of millions of rural Chinese migrated to the cities over the past quarter century, where many of them have marginal day labor type jobs and have a hard time getting their feet firmly on the ladder of success. They may live hundreds of miles from the lonely old folks at home, with neither the time nor the money to care for them.

Meanwhile, China’s one-child policy is looking more and more like a great disaster, with huge social and economic costs not far ahead. Limiting families to one child ensures that the entire burden for caring for elderly parents will fall on the shoulders of one individual. Allowing families more children would at least allow families to spread the load around. Even if you accept the idea that the state has the right to limit something as personal as the decision to bear children, two might have been a better place to draw the line than one.

Because of the one child policy and its dire demographic consequences, many China watchers have predicted both a demographic crunch (the work force will stop growing as population stagnates, slowing the rate of economic growth) and a crisis in caring for a large older generation. At a time when per capita income in China is still quite low, China must provide for an older generation that is larger than the generations that follow. At Via Meadia, we’ve also noted that China will face tough choices in the not so distant future: it can’t afford to set up a blue social model on its own with the expensive safety nets and eldercare provisions that we see in the rich Atlantic democracies and Japan, but an increasingly active and politically powerful population will push in this direction.

It appears that these problems are beginning to kick in; increasingly, China is no country for the old.

Published on December 30, 2012 10:01 am