A newly amended law touching on the issue of filial devotion has sparked debate in China's heavily Confucian society over the credibility of a system that enables parents to sue their offsprings for not paying them enough attention.
According to the recently revised Law on Protection of the Rights and Interests of the Elderly, children should not ignore their parents, and those who are responsible for financially supporting elderly relatives should visit them frequently, or at least keep in regular contact.
Failure to do so could lead to them being sued by their elders, as officials at the Ministry of Civil Affairs have ordered courts to start accepting such lawsuits, instead of quashing them as before.
This has given rise to a tirade of mocking responses from Chinese "netizens", who question how the courts can reasonably enforce such potentially risible legislation.
How does one define "frequent", they ask, and what would be a suitable punishment for those cold-blooded kids who selfishly focus on their own lives?
One key problem is that China's breakneck development in the past few decades has made it more difficult for certain strata of society to observe the traditional Confucian values that place home and family above all.
A good example of this is the rise - over the last two decades - of the Chinese migrant workers. These poor, and often poorly educated, people at the bottom of the breadbasket typically leave their provincial villages to hunt down factory jobs in big cities like Shenzhen or Guangzhou, but are only able to return home once a year for the Chinese New Year.
Don't they already have enough on their plate trying to secure a job, save enough money to buy an apartment, marry, have a child and support their child's education? The last thing they need to be burdened with is the threat of civil litigation by their aging parents.
Things are not much sweeter for their white-collar counterparts in the cities, who have to deal with high living costs in addition to rising inflation.
"I'd love to be able to visit my parents frequently, but how often is enough?" asks 35-year-old Jane Xu, a mother of two, who has lived in Shanghai for 15 years. "We'd like to get home more often, but it's easier said than done."
A return ticket to her hometown in Northeast China costs over 2,000 yuan ($302). Then there is the added cost of gifts, as Chinese people don't like to return home empty-handed. For a white-collar worker in Shanghai on a monthly salary of 6,000 yuan and with 10 days paid leave a year, this is a significant burden to bear.
If the young couple cannot afford the yearly expenditure, and if their parents become angry, will they be sued and sentenced? According to the amendment, the answer is "possibly yes".
China's family planning policy puts young couples in the position of having to support four parents and at least one child. With housing and education costs going through the roof, this new amendment looks like the straw that could break the camel's back for China's typically meek populace - hence the public backlash.
But was the amendment really necessary in the first place? According to Chinese tradition, visiting one's parents is a basic moral obligation, and few offspring shy away from this.
As China's population slowly starts to gray, legislators seem to be doing what they can to pre-empt a healthcare catastrophe as not enough workers struggle to support too many retirees. Some 167 million people are already over the age of 60, edging over the threshold of 10 percent that indicates a country is an aging society.
Given the changing dynamic of Chinese society, requiring people to conform to traditional moral standards from centuries ago is neither realistic nor reasonable.
The author is director of China Daily Shanghai News Center.
(China Daily 01/12/2011 page8)