OT (Overseas Topic) China: Rising 'Gray Tide', 1 in 10 over 60 years old

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Chinese leaders must deal with a rising 'gray tide'

WIRE:03/11/2000 12:25:00 ET
By John Leicester
Associated Press Writer

BEIJING (AP) _ Yang Wenxiu's wizened features tell of momentous times. At age 76, she has lived through China's warlord era, the communist victory, the regime's early hopeful years and the nation's rebirth from the ruinous radicalism of Mao Tse-tung.

Now, the retired paper factory worker whiles away her days in a small dark room in a home for the elderly. Traditionally, Yang would have looked to her son to house and care for her in old age. But he has diabetes and a family of his own, and she wants to lighten his load.

"They live their lives and I live here; that eases the burden on him," said Yang, sitting bundled in layers of clothes in her room with no outdoor windows. "That way it's better for him."

Now Yang is part of a nascent trend, a vision of how China sees its quickly graying future: a society in which a swelling army of retirees have secure pensions and, when their families can't care for them, are looked after in well-tended homes. But getting there won't be easy.

Many countries, including the United States and other developed nations, face aging populations. But China's problems stand out because of its poverty, the huge number of people involved and the speed with which its society is aging.

Already, some 126 million Chinese, or one of every 10 people, are aged 60 or over. That's equivalent to Japan's total population and the largest elderly population in the world.

By 2030, caring for a projected 300 million elderly could consume 10 percent of China's national income. By 2045, China is projected to have 400 million elderly _ one of every four Chinese, creating economic, social, emotional and health-care pressures that could complicate China's drive to become a developed nation.

State-run newspapers call it China's "gray tide." Already, suicide rates among the elderly are disturbingly high, as some old people choose death over loneliness or impoverishing their families with medical bills.

Confucian traditions of respect for elders are losing currency with younger Chinese brought up on fast-food and rock music. Protests by retirees over unpaid pensions are common.

The popularity of the Falun Gong spiritual movement highlighted some of the dangers. By promising better health, the sect attracted retirees struggling with rising health-care costs. When the multimillion-member movement grew too big and organized, the government banned it and detained thousands of adherents, drawing international criticism.

For now, China is shoring up traditions of family care for the elderly while spurring private firms, foreign ones included, to open retirement homes. Policies also are being drafted to encourage the growth of a geriatric care industry, pension funds are being retooled, and some academics are urging the government to consider foreign pension managers.

In Shanghai, where already nearly one in five people is 60 or older, American International Assurance has been selling life insurance since 1992. Other foreign-funded firms have followed suit and expect China's entry into the World Trade Organization to further open the tightly controlled market.

Neurotech, a company based in Manhasset, N.Y., that sells fully equipped hospitals, is building a $30 million geriatric facility in southern Guangdong province that will cater for up to 30,000 people.

Some cities are retraining unemployed workers as home-helpers for the elderly, making their food and doing their shopping and other chores.

Some 70 percent of China's elderly, particularly in rural areas, still live with children or relatives, while less than 1 million live in retirement homes.

But the demand for homes is growing fast. Many young people are too busy to care for their elderly relatives, or work far away from them. Young couples are also increasingly eager to live apart from their parents.

"In China, the tradition used to be 'raise children as insurance for old age.' But these days raising children isn't insurance because sons and daughters have to work," said Zheng Yanhua, an administrator at the home where Yang lives. "Long-term, there is a very big market for retirement homes."

China's age problem is in part a penalty for its past. The civil war that took the communists to power in 1949 was followed by a buoyant 1950s that fueled a baby boom. Mao, the revolution's leader, encouraged population growth, believing it would make China strong. An even bigger surge in births followed in the 1960s.

Now the baby boomers are heading toward retirement. But because of family planning policies enforced after Mao's death in 1976, many have had just one child. That has created what experts call "4-2-1" families, where single children face the daunting possibility of caring for both parents and four grandparents.

"Children born in the 1970s already face this problem," said Zheng. "The pressures of work and life on them are very big. They can't bear the burden."

Opened in September by local officials in an industrial suburb of Beijing, the home where Zheng works has 76 beds, with basic prices ranging from 550 yuan to 1,500 yuan ($65-$180), including food. Some of the poshest rooms have kitchens and bathrooms. Yang's, the cheapest, is cramped with three beds and a shared wardrobe.

Yang pays her fees with her $72 monthly pension.

"I eat three good meals a day, read the newspapers, wander around the garden and sometimes go out to buy a few things," she said. "Each day lived is a day less, so I buy whatever I fancy eating _ persimmons, fruit."

But few in the countryside, where most of China's 1.2 billion people live, get pensions. Most carry on working _ tending crops and animals, minding children _ as long as possible. Then they depend on their spouse and family.

"This state of affairs will continue for many years yet," said Xiao Zhenyu, deputy director of the China Research Center on Aging. "China's economic foundations are still very weak. It would be very difficult for the state to care for all the elderly."

To firm up family networks, China passed a law in 1996 threatening punishment for children who abuse or neglect their parents. The government, meanwhile, encourages the elderly to keep fit and the widowed to remarry so they can support each other in old age.

In Shanghai's suburbs, officials have joined with local enterprises in getting people to sign contracts committing them to support their parents, said Sun Changmin at the city's Academy of Social Sciences

"Some sons and daughters aren't willing to look after their parents; they think they are burdened enough," he said. But after they sign the contract, "if sons and daughters stop looking after their old people, the government can prosecute them."

Copyright )2000 ABC News Internet Ventures

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