Rural elderly left lonely, uncared

Updated: 2006-11-03 16:07

Gao Shenmu, left, at home in Baodeng, the village where he and his wife, Wang Xiuying, raised six children. Three of their four sons migrated to get jobs, leaving two grandchildren to be cared for. The sons rarely visit.

BAODENG, China -- If having children is a mark of wealth, Gao Shenmu and Wang Xiuying, a farming couple in their 70s, surely rank as rich.

They raised six children in this rolling, fertile countryside before China imposed its single-child policy. What's more, as the cities of the distant east flourished and boomed, three of their four sons migrated along with millions of others, landing jobs and joining the cash economy.

But for just that reason, their very Chinese dream of security in old age, built on the next generation's obligation to them, has badly foundered.

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The sons moved, but they left their own two young children behind to be cared for. They rarely visit and collectively send just $30 or $40 a year home. Mr. Gao and Ms. Wang make do at harvest time, spending two weeks in backbreaking labour that once took them less than a week to perform.

The couple's experience is increasingly commonplace. The chief of their hamlet put its predicament this way: "Knock on 10 doors, and 9 of them will be opened by old people."

And across much of the Chinese countryside the situation is the same, with villages emptied of their working-age populations, leaving behind small children and grandparents.

China is a rapidly aging society, but in villages like this, more than anything else the abrupt shift toward a preponderance of old people is driven by migration. Since the era of economic reforms got under way a little more than a quarter century ago, hundreds of millions of people have been on the march, most of them peasants looking for better economic opportunities in the urbanized east.

And as China's economy has developed, old customs -- like the ironclad obligation to venerate and care for the elderly -- with roots in 2,500-year-old Confucian doctrine, are breaking down.

"The reality of China today is that the needs of the elderly cannot be taken care of by the social system," said Zhai Yuhe, a member of the Heilongjiang Provincial People's Congress. "Most of them must rely on younger people, but today's young people pay attention to their own children, and not to their elders."

Mr. Zhai, who is also an executive of a private coal company, personally financed a study of the situation of the elderly in the countryside so that he could recommend new laws to the government concerning care of senior citizens. He said he was shocked into action by the death of an old couple in his own hometown, who had essentially been abandoned and were not discovered for days.

"In our society, children have become the highest good, and old people have become nothing," he said.

He Xuefeng, an expert in rural governance at Huazhong University of Science and Technology, said that although the central government has begun re-emphasizing development of the countryside since last year, in a push to reduce the gap between haves and have-nots, the situation for the rural elderly is deteriorating.

"New priorities have been set, but all of the emphasis is on economic development," Mr. He said. "The traditional values of our villages have been devastated. One half of the population is changing very fast, and the other is clinging to its values. Under the circumstances, life becomes tougher and tougher for the elderly."

Some who have been abandoned have sued their children for support.

Earlier this year in another part of Sichuan Province, Tian Guifang, a 69-year-old widow, successfully sued her son and daughter for abandonment. After her husband died in 2003, Ms. Tian lived with her son for a time, but was kicked out. When her daughter refused to take her in, she went to court, winning a judgment allowing her to live with her daughter and obliging her son to pay about $12 a month in support.

Some experts on aging in China say suicide is spreading among the elderly. In one recent case in Jiangxi Province, Li Qiurong, a 70-year-old peasant woman with five sons, killed herself by drinking pesticide, after breaking her leg and not being able to care for herself. Newspaper accounts said the sons had all built new houses for themselves, but that their mother was living alone in a hut.

Yuan Xing, a demographer at Nankai University, said that at the end of 2005 China had 147 million people over the age of 60, and 80 percent of them in rural areas. Official estimates put the country's floating population, or internal migrants, at 147 million, a number that consists overwhelmingly of adults in their prime who have left the countryside for the booming economies of the eastern coast.

Most of them are from provinces in east-central China, like Hubei, Hunan, Anhui and Sichuan. Sichuan, China's most populous province, is its biggest supplier of migrant labour.

"With the development of the economy, in the future, the floating population will continue to grow," said Mr. Yuan, who conceded that little academic attention had been focused on the impact on China's villages of this huge population outflow.

In some respects, one need not wait for the studies to come in. Experts like Mr. Yuan say that children raised by rural grandparents, who are often illiterate, will be strongly disadvantaged.

And rural incomes are unlikely to rise when heavy farm labor falls to the elderly. Ms. Wang, in her little village in Sichuan, said she and Mr. Gao worked as hard as they could, but it was not enough.

"We can"t work as hard as before, because when we do too much, we feel dizzy," said Ms. Wang, 74.

One son returned this year to help at harvest time, but then went back to Kunming, the capital of Yunnan Province.

"After all is said, we miss them, particularly when we get sick," she added, her eyes welling with tears. "I broke my arm last year and could not even lift it. Our son in Yunnan came back to see me and help out, but the ticket is expensive for him. I know that."

Courtesy of New York Times

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