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Warning over China's aging populace
Updated: 2004-06-12 11:34

Even though government officials are engaged in handling statistics and reports on the overheated economy and high unemployment rates, some experts warn that China will soon face problems brought by its rapidly aging population unless effective measures are taken in time.

China has the world's largest elderly population, with 134 million people over 60 years old, a figure that is likely to hit 400 million by the middle of this century.

"A flawed population structure has turned out to be a knotty issue for many developed nations, and now it befalls China, which is still a developing country," said Zhang Yi, a veteran demographic expert with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

A sample investigation in 2001 said 7.83 percent of Chinese people were above 65, and in 2020 the proportion would rise to 12 percent.

The aging process is speeded up especially in the cities as the one-child policy was adopted in the 1970s, and more couples now tend to postpone pregnancy or not to have babies at all, said Zhang.

Implementation of the one-child policy in the past decades prevented fast population growth, but it also expedited the aging process.

As most experts foresee, some 20 years from now, a young couple will have to look after at least four parents from both families. By then caring for the elderly will not be a family issue but a social one.

Guo Shuzhen, a 62-year-old widow, lives in a single-room apartment at a seaside rest home in Dalian, a scenic city in northeastern Liaoning Province, and a typical day for her involves walking on the seashore, watching TV or playing mahjong.

"I can find almost no topics to talk about with young people, and I would rather live by myself," she said.

Unlike others living there who share a room to cut the fees, Guo enjoys a single room which costs 1,580 yuan (US$190) per month, equivalent to the salary of a well-off office clerk in the city. Guo pays roughly 30 percent of the rent with her pension and the rest is covered by her five grown-up sons and daughters.

More than two decades ago when the nation was still under the planned economy, it was considered a shame to send a senior parent to a rest home, which was at the time prepared for those who had no families or income.

Nowadays, however, China has more than 50,000 organizations, state-owned or private, providing care for senior citizens. More and more young people are occupied with office and housework, and some do not want to care for their parents at all.

Experts compare China with Japan for both are facing pressure from the rising number of elderly. Japan, as a prosperous industrialized nation, has nearly set up a nationwide social security umbrella covering its old people while China still doesn't have one yet, they said.

In the late 1990s, the Chinese authorities began to construct a mechanism under which a social insurance fund was established by the government to offer employed people pensions after their retirement. Yet it is proving to be far from enough.

First, the fund only covers full-time workers whose employers are willing to pay their share of the fund, which makes only 17 percent of the labor population in the nation eligible for the pensions. As for the masses of rural people who have no regular jobs, they have no pensions at all.

The fast-growing elderly population is likely to become a hurdle for China's overall development if efficient measures are not taken in time, said Yang Tuan, a CASS scholar on demography, adding that the most important thing now is to find a suitable remedy.

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