China’s demographic and social structure has changed significantly in recent years. If one was to study China’s family system at almost any period of Chinese history, until the end of the 1900s, they would notice a clear trend. In accordance with the principles embedded in China’s Confucian foundations, the Chinese elderly would have been the head of the family, and would have commanded respect from their younger relatives. Moreover, as stated in the Confucian principle of “filial piety,” the adult children of China’s elderly population would, between them, have dutifully cared for the financial needs of their elderly parents throughout their retirement. The elderly, then, used to be not a burden on China’s younger generations, but the respected and honoured pinnacle of Chinese society. However, due to the changing demographics arising from the One-Child policy, and rural to urban migration, the socio-economic support for China’s elderly is beginning to waiver.
In order to circumvent excessive and uncontrolled population growth, China’s leaders introduced the ‘One-Child-Per-Family’ policy in 1979, and a successor of China’s more leniant “later-longer-fewer” campaign which was proposed in the early 1970s. However as fertility numbers have been restricted, and indeed, have fallen to below replacement levels of 1.6 in China; the Chinese family structure has begun to significantly shift. Large families, with several children and grandchildren living together either under a single roof, or within close approximation of one-another was the unspoken norm in the post-reform era. As stated, adult children shared between them the role of supporting their aged parents. Yet China’s population control policies have essentially replaced these family structures with nuclear 4-2-1 families whereby four grandparents raise adult children, who themselves raise a single child. This changing family structure has had profound and demographically unequal consequences on China’s elderly.
In large subjections of China’s vast rural regions, workers are employed in agricultural, informal, or subsistence jobs. Therefore, many citizens in rural China fail to have any form of pension security from their employers. Despite piecemeal developments in pension reforms in recent years, the Chinese leadership is still failing to provide sufficient support for China’s elderly. A basic rural pension scheme was established by the Chinese government in 2009, however the minimum provisions are still painfully low, and its coverage is still limited. Therefore, although the family structure is changing and it is becoming increasingly difficult for “only” adult children carry the burden of financially providing for their parents in elderly age, research in rural areas still shows that children are perceived as being the primary providers of rural pension support. Moreover, in Chinese tradition, after marriage daughters tend to “uproot” themselves from their family homes and effectively marry in to their spouse’s family settlement. Once married, they are responsible for financially caring for their spouse’s retired parents, rather than their own parents. Hence, rural couples with no sons face extreme vulnerability in old age.
In addition, the principle of “filial piety” is today being challenged by the economic imperative in China. The mean wage in urban China is between two and five times higher than the mean wage in rural China according to different counterfactuals and regions. As China’s leaders have emphasised the national dream of establishing a new generation of “wealthy” middle class citizens, increasing numbers of China’s working age rural population are migrating to the country’s cities in search of higher pay and greater living standards. Yet for China’s retired rural population, who have little to gain from relocating to the cities, migration creates another source of vulnerability, as adult children increasingly move further away from their elderly parents, and the countryside. The World Bank describes China’s rural elderly as being the “left behind” generation.
In urban areas of China, wages tend to be higher, and research today suggests that citizens are actively circumventing lowering fertility by taking conscious steps to financially plan for their own future. Although the remarkably generous “rice bowl” benefits of State Owned Enterprises have been dissolved, nevertheless, many urban employers provide basic pension insurance for their staff. Although apparent, reports suggest that the plight of the elderly in China’s cities is less profound.
According to the World Bank, the old age dependency ratio is significantly increasing throughout China, but is rising more rapidly in rural China, so as to further exacerbate rural-urban inequality and old age vulnerability in rural areas. By 2030 the old-age dependency ratio will be in excess of one third in rural China and 21% in urban areas of China.
Evidently, the aging crisis is China is becoming more, rather than less profound, and is not going to disappear. It requires action. Yet, by disproportionately channelling resources and lucrative international business opportunities into China’s cities, and enacting endogenous population policies, the plight of China’s elderly is essentially the doing of China’s government. If China’s leaders wish to address this problem, they will need to increase the scope and the minimum financial coverage of the Rural Pension Plan. “Filial Piety” may be under strain, but that does not mean that the survival of China’s elderly should be too.
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