A generation or two of China’s only children are being reminded of their obligations to elderly parents by a law change that comes into effect later this year. An amendment passed December 28th to the Protection of the Rights and Interests of the Elderly law says that “family members who live separately from the elderly should visit them often."
Though the amendment does not specify how often visits should take place, it does stipulate that employers should help make this possible. "Employers should guarantee the right to home leave in accordance with relevant regulations," the law says.
According to state media, the new clause was added to existing legislation because China's growing elderly population is becoming increasingly neglected. With this law, it will give the elderly a framework to justify pursuing legal action if they feel they have been disregarded by their children.
China's elderly, traditionally revered, are now a forgotten population amid the nation's rapid development. Stories of abandonment and mistreatment are not uncommon. In early December, Weibo, China's version of Twitter, caught wind of the story of a grandmother in her 90s in Jiangsu province who was left alone in a pigsty by her children. Moreover, cases of children trying to seize the assets of their elderly parents without approval also make headlines frequently.
Thanks to more than three decades of the one-child policy, an only child becomes responsible for caring for both parents and usually both sets of grandparents, which is a great financial burden for a single person. Liu Xinran, a Beijing native, told Al-Jazeera about her struggle as an only child caring for her parents.
"As an only child in my family, I have a lot of pressure to perform well, because the young people have to support and take care of the family. My parents, on the other hand, have each two siblings, so when my grandma gets sick, the aunts and uncles can take turns taking care of them," Liu explained.
A professor says the new amendment is meant to serve as a reminder of traditional obligations about one's parents and the need to tend to them emotionally, rather than result in actual prosecution. But the need for a law already shows the difficulty of maintaining “traditional obligations” in a revolutionary family structure.
In any case, many in the swelling ranks of China’s elderly -- the National Committee on Aging estimates that a third of the Chinese population will be 60 or older by 2053 -- need more than “emotional” attention. If their children cannot provide material support they will be demanding it of the government. And so they should, since the government deprived them of a natural family. However, the crisis of Western welfare states under the financial burden of an ageing population would not be encouraging to Beijing.