China Bridge (神州橋樑)_2005/Nov

An ageing China and an old pope

The human race is no longer young. For most of history, societies have teemed with children and teens, a smaller number of young adults, some in middle age and only a few elderly. Old cemeteries are filled with small skeletons. From the Stone Age until a couple of centuries ago, those 65 or older comprised only four per cent of the population. In most parts of the world, the good news is that infant mortality is down and life expectancy is up. This is progress and cause for joy. The other side of the coin is that the median age has risen and seniors will multiply in the coming decades.

This transition from a young to a mature society is happening faster in China than almost anywhere else. On one hand, life expectancy has gone from 35 years, in 1949, to 69 years for men and 73 for women. On the other hand, the baby boom of the 1950s and 1960s started losing steam in the late 1970s. Then, with almost no warning, the One Child Policy punctured the baby boom.

People have seen this wave of aging coming for a quarter of a century. Typing the two words “China elderly” on a search engine yields 6.4 million hits. Websites and newspapers do not agree to the last decimal, but those 65 plus went from 5.6 per cent in 1990 to 7.6 per cent in 200l and will reach 10 per cent in 2017, then 20 per cent in 2037. Tomorrow’s seniors have already been born and almost all of them will live in China all their lives. How many of today’s 30-something and middle-aged adults will become elderly is not perfectly predictable. It depends on everything from how many million people are able to quit smoking to how many can afford medical care. Yet the big picture is clear enough: between 10 and 30 years from now, China will have aged drastically.

But what does “elderly” mean? Some readers might be surprised that age 60 is considered elderly in China. Old China labelled years with two characters, one from the 10 Earth Stems and the other from the 12 Heavenly Stems. The least common multiple is 60. One’s 60th birthday still calls for a huge party in Korea, less so in China today. Most men retire at 60, women at 55, far too early. It is easy to predict that the retirement age will have to be raised before long. Too many retirees for too few workers do not make a viable ratio for any pension or social security program.

It is easy to crunch numbers and forget the human beings involved. Each individual, each family, and each part of the country has its own story. Yet there are some general patterns. Chinese culture has always stressed filial piety, xiao (孝), and few places in the world have matched east Asia when it comes to honoring father and mother. “Empty nesters,” those whose children had all grown up and moved away, were rare in the old days. Two or three, and sometimes four, generations lived under the same roof. A rare five generation household was the ideal, while six generations was biologically impossible.

But today in the cities, young adults with a decent job like to have some independence and a flat of their own. Most apartments are too cramped for three generations. With property values rising in the urban cores and new skyscrapers replacing old dwellings, many seniors find themselves in housing estates in the suburbs, far from either downtown or the residences of their children. One solution China is considering, is building both small and larger apartments on the same floor, so that the grandparents and the younger generation can live down the hall from each other, as is done in some countries. Yet before long a 4-2-1 pattern: four grandparents, two parents and one grandchild, will be common in cities. The geriatric tsunami is rolling first towards Shanghai, which recently relaxed the one child rule for newlyweds. A rich city with many DINKS (double income, no kids), Shanghai has a total fertility rate of only 0.8 children per woman. So it aims to almost double the number of annual births between 2003 and 2009. Time will tell. Hong Kong’s fertility rate is almost as low, thus the SAR government is now extolling larger families. Yet local people joke that, “In Hong Kong, the most effective form of birth control is high rent.” There has been talk of moving seniors from Hong Kong to Shenzhen (“It’s not Siberia, it’s just 90 minutes away”), where everything is less expensive. This is not likely to happen on a large scale.

Rural seniors are in a more precarious situation. Migration from the farming villages to cities for work began in the early 1980s and rose dramatically in the 1990s. In rural Hubei, those 60 and over and living alone, climbed from 11.4 per cent in 1985 to 27.6 per cent in 2005. Seven out of ten seniors live in the countryside. Yes, tens of millions of urban workers, carrying presents, crowd onto trains and busses at Chinese New Year for a home visit. Then the elders are left alone for another 11 months. Few have a pension, so old farmers keep working for as long as possible. As always, widows have a hard time, but at least they will not starve in New China.

Both in the village and in the city, medical bills are a cross of the later years. China has a weak social welfare system. The economy is growing, yes, but China will get old before it gets rich. The National People’s Congress passed a law against elder abuse on 1 October 1996. Most care for older parents simply has to come from their children. Yet there are limits to filial piety. If a poor family has to choose between high school tuition for a grandchild and dentures for grandfather, then grandfather will eat soft food. If the only way to pay for kidney dialysis for grandmother is to sell a teenage girl, then grandmother will not be long for this world.

China’s first hospice opened in Tianjin in 1990. Hong Kong donors have opened a few hospices in Guangdong. With 1.7 million deaths from cancer alone each year, more can be done in palliative care.

While at most, one per cent of China’s population, Catholics have been pioneers in opening homes for the elderly, first at Sheshan, outside Shanghai in 1988, then in other locales. Although there are not enough beds, the quality of care given by sisters has helped the image of the Church and sometimes inspired local governments to imitate this corporal work of mercy.

Pope John Paul II addressed a Letter to the Elderly on 1 October 1999. He was then 79, so he “felt the desire to engage in conversation with you.” He begins by thanking God for a long life, trusting that God will not forsake him now that he is “old and grey.” (Ps. 71:17-18)

As an educated European, the pope is familiar with the wisdom of Greece and Rome: “Respect grey hair: give to the elderly sage the same signs of respect that you give your own father.” – Phocylides; “Old age is the autumn of life,” and “The burden of age is lighter for those who feel respected and loved by the young.” – Cicero; “Time flies irretrievably.” – Virgil. Those who know the Four Books and Five Classics can quote parallel sayings in Chinese.

Yet as a Christian, the pope quotes more from the Bible: Honour your father and mother, so that your days in the land which the Lord your God gives you may be long” (Ex. 20:12); “Rise in the presence of one with grey hair; honour the person of the older man” (Lev. 19:32); “Attend the meetings with older people. Is there one who is wise? Spend time with him” (Sir. 6:34); “God is not God of the dead but of the living” (Lk. 20:38).

Having lived through a lot of history, the holy Father is not blind to the hatred, wars and evil of the 20th century. Painful memories, yes, but also progress in human rights and social justice, political independence, appreciation of cultural identity, interreligious dialogue, recognition of the dignity of women, and a new ecological awareness. History is not one random event after another, neither is it unbroken progress. God is with us, so there is hope for the future in spite of tribulations.

The Bible records many older people who accomplished great things: Abraham and Sarah, Moses, Elizabeth and Zachariah, Simeon and Anna, and Peter dying a martyr. Rather than being a time of idleness and uselessness, old age is revealed as a “favourable time for bringing life to its fulfilment and, in God’s plan for each person, as a time when everything comes together and enables us better to grasp life’s meaning and to attain wisdom of heart.” Our faith in Christ’s victory over sin and death “illumines the mystery of death and brings serenity to old age.”

China’s traditional respect for the elderly took a battering during the Cultural Revolution. Today’s consumer society does not value the memory and experience of seniors. A web search for China euthanasia yields over a million hits as China considers a grey future. The words of the late Pope John Paul II to the elderly are worth pondering, and living, in China and throughout the world.