Peking orders children to take care of aged parents

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Filial piety and respect for the elderly can no longer be relied on as the bedrock of China's traditional Confucian values. So, bowing to the reality of fast-changing social mores, China yesterday implemented a new law banning the "neglect, humiliation and abuse" of old people. Under the legislation, children who refuse to give financial support to their elderly parents can, in theory, be punished.

After more than a decade of economic reform, provision for China's growing number of over-60s often falls into a black hole between the decaying "cradle-to-grave" welfare system and a nascent plan for pension reform. Zhang Wenfan, president of the China National Committee on Ageing, last month warned: "The traditional planned economy system and its social structures, including social guarantees for old people, will be pounded and destroyed by the market economy."

In the cities, old people mostly rely on state pensions from their former work units. But many of these state-owned enterprises are racked with debts and cannot pay salaries, let alone pensions and medical bills.

Millions of pensioners are owed money. Early this year, 71-year-old Meng Xiang and five former colleagues tried suing the Shandong Provincial Disinfecting Equipment Factory in Jinan city after not receiving their 90 yuan (pounds 7.50) monthly pension for almost a year. But the factory was bankrupt and the local government department said it also had no funds.

In the countryside, retired farmers have no pension rights and rely on their families for support. Difficulties arise in poor areas where unemployment is already chronic, and the younger generation must leave the land to work in cities far away. Fear of old age is one of the main reasons farmers still want lots of children.

The new Law for the Protection of the Rights and Interests of Old People is supposed to define the roles of government, communities and families in looking after the elderly. For the government, the question of who will foot the bill for senior citizens is urgent. The combination of greater life expectancy and strict birth control means China is set for a faster "greying" demographic revolution than any other country in the world. The 110 million or so over-60s now account for almost 10 per cent of the population, but that will soar to more than 25 per cent by 2040, when the country will have to look after around 400 million people over 60.

Today's urban "Little Emperors", the spoilt children of the one-child policy, will in the next century be the lone providers for their parents and possibly two sets of grandparents. The problem is that in modern China, as in the West, the younger generation has other priorities.

Young adults no longer want to live in the traditional style of "three generations under one roof", especially after they get married. But even if money is available, there are very few old people's homes. One Chinese academic said: "The contribution of young people to society is lower [than the elderly] but their income is higher. The change in this economic position will definitely have an influence on the young's attitude to old people."

The new law nevertheless stipulates that most old people should remain in the care of their families, although central government and social organisations must provide a social security system for them. Developed areas ought to establish community welfare services for the elderly, it says.

When it is a question of romance late in life, the younger generation is often disapproving of new liaisons among bereaved parents. The law specifies that children of the elderly should not interfere in old people's remarriage.