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.
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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