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One child blues

China’s first generation of “only child”, seen as the little sun of a family’s in their childhood never feel so lonely and helpless, when it comes to the time to practice the “universal social principle” to take care of their aging parents.

“It was nice to be the focus of the family when I was a kid, surrounded by the people who loved me,” says Cao Yanhui, an advertiser from Beijing.

“But now, if I was still a star, then there were at least four planets on different orbits needing my energy,” says Cao, referring to her parents and in-laws.

Not since Cao discovered recently that her parents had “moved in” the same city she lives for more than three years from southern China’s Hunan Province, has she felt the urgency of her responsibility to take care of her parents.

“My parents bought a small apartment in suburban Beijing in 2008, but they never said anything about that,” says Cao aged 32.. “It was a big surprise, and I'm not sure if it's a happy one. My husband and I aren't ready for this.”

China's National Population and Family Planning Commission announced in 2007 that the number of “only children” living in China hit 90 million. The number is believed to be over 100 million at the present time.

Cao and her husband both come from single-child families. After Cao gave birth to a boy last June, she found that she had what has been referred to as a “4-2-1” family, suggesting a family made up of four grandparents, a couple and their child.

The “4-2-1” phenomenon is largely the result of the family planning laws China implemented in the 1980s to control its population, which had boomed since the 1950s. Proponents of the one-child policy saw the country's population growth rate, which peaked at 2.09 percent in 1982, as a potential economic and political threat.

The policy proved to be effective. Some 30 years later, a census conducted by the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) showed that the population of the world’s most populous country was shrinking, with the country's population growth rate falling to 0.57 percent in 2010.

However, a lower number of births lead to the creation of an “aging society,” a phenomenon in which 10 percent or more of a country's population is at or above the age of 60. The NBS census showed an aged population of 177 million in China, or 13.26 percent of the entire population.

Figuring out how to take care of the country's elderly is a growing problem in China. Chinese culture also comes into play; the concept of “filial piety,” or pledging to take care of one's parents after reaching adulthood, was once taught as an inescapable responsibility. Those who fail to fulfill the filial responsibility will be regarded as a family shame.

It has become increasingly difficult for only children to follow this traditional practice, as they have no siblings with whom to share the responsibility. In addition, many of these children have moved away from the cities where their parents leave, making it more complicated for their children to care for them.

Cao's mother Fang Hongbo is looking forward to shortening the distance between her and her daughter. She and her husband now live in an low-middle-class apartment complex in the southern suburbs of Beijing. The one-bedroom apartment is just 60 square meters in size and cost them nearly all of their savings.

The couple has tried hard to adapt to their new life. As the first step, Fang decided to try and make traditional Hunan hot pepper sauce at her new home in Beijing.

“It doesn’t taste right because of the poor water quality and bad weather here. I have to throw it away and do it again," says the 58-year-old retired accountant, who appears willowy and demure.

Fang says that she began to consider moving to Beijing after retiring eight years ago, adding that she hinted at the possibility during discussions with her daughter.

“I told my daughter how I felt and proposed moving to Beijing, but I guess she didn’t take me seriously. She might think that it’s not a problem, as both my husband and I are still healthy,” she says.

Fang's generation has seen extraordinary ups and downs. She was born at a time when China was reinventing itself; however, this joyous period was followed by a nationwide famine and the decade-long political turmoil of the Cultural Revolution.

By the time Fang's generation reached middle age, it faced a difficult adaptation in the form of China's new market-oriented economy. Increased urbanization led to another problem: the migration of their children to the country's larger cities.

“There has been too much drama in our lives. I don’t expect my daughter, who can't understand what it meant for us to starve back then, to understand my sense of insecurity,” says Fang.

“I feel sorry for any trouble we've brought to my daughter’s family, and I also feel sorry for the parents of my son-in-law, who face the same issues with his parents,” says Fang.

Nursing homes might be an option, although the government has a long way to go in providing enough of these for the country's elderly population.

In China, government-financed nursing homes, being non-profit or running at a cheap price, should give priority to those disabled or those with low incomes, no incomes, or no family.

In addition, there is a social stigma attached to entering nursing homes.

“My generation still believes there is a stigma attached to living in a retirement home. It’s like admitting that your kids don’t want to support you,” says Fang.

A report by China's National Committee on Aging found that 12 million of China's elderly citizens consider living in a nursing home to be their best option. However, China only has 38,060 nursing homes, with a total capacity of 2.1 million people, according to the Ministry of Civil Affairs.

The government will increase investment and make preferential policies to promote the development of senior care institutions during the 12th Five-Year Plan (2011-2015) period, says Li Liguo, the minister of civil affairs.

Private investment will also play a part in bolstering the country's elderly care. According to the ministry, China's “elderly market” will be worth 800 billion yuan by 2050. Zhu Fengbo, chairman of the Beijing Sun City Group, has been seeking business opportunities in this market.

The 48-year-old Beijing native built the largest private-run senior care compound, with more than 2000 residents, in the northern suburbs of Beijing in 2001.

The Sun City is similar to other Beijing apartment complexes; it features a supermarket, a shopping mall and a small hospital nearby. The difference is that everyone who lives there is a senior citizen, some of whom hail from other provinces to live there.

“I believe that Sun City has set an example for the future development of the senior care industry. It provides a solution to one of the biggest problems of the one-child generation: how to balance looking after their parents with developing their careers," says Zhu.

Sun City residents are allowed to either purchase their apartments or pay rent, sharing the apartments with other residents. The cost can be prohibitive; residents pay 15,000 yuan per square meter to purchase their apartments, while renters pay anywhere between 2,300 to 3,800 per month, not including the cost of any medical care they may need.

Chang Juncheng, a 66-year-old retired bus driver from Beijing, currently lives in a rented Sun City apartment with a 63-year-old roommate. For Chang, the main reasons to live in Sun City are social ones.

“It's lonely to live in town, because my children are too busy with work and can't come visit me very often. But there are a lot of people around my age here, so I don't have to watch TV all day anymore,” Chang says.

Sociologist Zhou Xiaozheng also believes a retirement home can never replace the function of a real family for the elders.

“We are all hunger for love and cares,” says Zhou.

Awakened by her mother’s action, Cao Yanhui is also pondering whether she herself will end up in a retirement home.

“Dare you send me to the nursing house one day?!” Cao speaks to her son’s picture in her iphone.


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