On the eve of the Lunar New Year festival, when Chinese flood train stations, bus terminals and airports to reunite with loved ones, one Chinese ministry is proposing that the government mandate closer families.
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.
“Before, the courts did not accept this kind of lawsuit,” Wu Ming, a deputy inspector for the ministry, told The Legal Evening News this month. “But from now on, they will have to open up a case.”
The proposed amendment to a 1996 law on rights of the aged could be considered by the National People’s Congress, China’s government-appointed legislature, when it conducts its annual session in March. But Jing Jun, a sociology professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing, said it was unlikely to pass.
“The national delegates are rational enough,” Mr. Jing said.
Other specialists on aging issues hope it sails into law.
“I know the person who drafted this provision, and the first thing I told him was ‘Really nice move,’ ” said Ninie Wang, international director of the Gerontological Society of China, a Beijing-based nonprofit research group. “The whole society needs to start seeing that we need to give the elderly more care and attention.”
Concerns about how to care for China’s older people are growing as the nation’s population rapidly gets older, wealthier and more urbanized. China has the world’s third highest elderly suicide rate, trailing only South Korea and Taiwan, according to Mr. Jing, who compiled figures from the World Health Organization and Taiwan. The figures show a disturbing increase in suicides among the urban elderly in the past decade, a trend Mr. Jing blames partly on urbanization.
Once ensconced in intimate neighborhoods of courtyard houses and small lanes and surrounded by relatives and acquaintances, older people in China are increasingly moving into lonely high-rises and feeling forgotten, he said.
The average suicide rate among people 70 to 74 living in cities nearly tripled between 2002 and 2009, compared with the average rate for the 1990s, his research shows. On the plus side, government-provided insurance covering basic medical care has eased stress, possibly contributing to the decline in the suicide rate for the elderly in cities after 2006.
In rural areas, the rate of suicides among the same age group fell compared with the 1990s, Mr. Jing said, but still remains far higher than the rate in urban areas.
The notion that adult children should care for their aged parents is deeply ingrained in Chinese society. Offspring who shirk their responsibilities are met with scorn — and sometimes legal judgments. In Shandong Province, for instance, a court ordered three daughters to each pay their 80-year-old mother between 350 to 500 renminbi, roughly $53 to $75 a month, after the mother claimed that they ignored her and treated her like a burden, The Qingdao Evening News reported this month.
But China’s elderly population is growing rapidly while the number of young adults is shrinking, a huge demographic shift that has been building for decades. While the elderly still make up a relatively small share of China’s population compared with some Western nations, demographers predict that the proportion of elderly will nearly double from 2008 to 2025. By 2050, they say, one in four Chinese will be 65 or older.
At the same time, “younger generations are moving away from their parents and quickly developing different values,” Ms. Wang said. “Filial piety is a myth.”
Whereas once several generations shared the same dwelling, more than half of all Chinese over the age of 60 now live separately from their adult children, according to a November report by China’s National Committee on Aging, an advisory group to the State Council. That percentage shoots up to 70 percent in some major cities, the report said. Half of those over the age of 60 suffer from chronic illness and about 3 in 10 suffer from depression or other mental disorders, the group said.
The Civil Affairs Ministry is not the only government agency rushing to the defense of older people. Last week, the eastern province of Jiangsu passed an ordinance forbidding adult children from forcing their parents to give them money or goods, according to The Yangzi Evening News.
China terms adult children who lean too heavily on their parents “kenlao zu” — literally, people who nibble on their elders. The Chinese Research Center on Aging, a government-financed research center under the Civil Affairs Ministry, estimates that 3 in 10 adult Chinese remain partly or totally financially dependent on their parents.
Like the proposed national amendment, the provincial ordinance encourages adult children to see their parents regularly. What constitutes regular — as opposed to occasional or infrequent — is unclear. So is how such a requirement could be enforced.
Mr. Wu, the Civil Affairs Ministry official, said in his interview with The Legal Evening News that lawsuits accusing children of emotional neglect of their parents “would be different from normal lawsuits.”
Because the amendment tries to govern social behavior, he said, “some details cannot be set forth very clearly.” He suggested some lawsuits might end in supervision or mediation.
The amendment also addresses the need for more facilities, community care and in-home services for the older people, as well as the need for more social benefits, like free routine medical checkups. A spokesman for the ministry said he could not comment on the proposed amendment because it had not yet become law.
Li Bibo and Xiyun Yang contributed research.