Forward Magazine, May/June 2013
For three months, 26-year-old Fan Meng pushed his wheelchair-bound mother nearly 3,500 kilometers from Beijing to Xishuangbanna in Yunnan province to fulfill her long-held dream of visiting the idyllic travel destination. This epic journey, widely covered last year by the Chinese media, is an inspiring tale that harked back six centuries to the beloved folk classic, the 24 Paragons of Filial Piety. Among its fables: The son who strangles a tiger to save his father and the 8-year-old who lets a swarm of mosquitoes bite him to protect his parents.
These days, in an increasingly urbanized China where grown children often live great distances from their elderly parents, such tales spur debate about the changing dynamic in modern Chinese families. They offer an uneasy reminder of the widening generation gap—and the treacherous gulf between the Communist Party’s 2006 resolution to create a “harmonious society” by 2020 and the far more complicated on-the-ground reality.
When nearly 3,000 Chinese age 20 and older were asked who should provide for the elderly, their answers illuminated the bumpy road ahead: Only 4% thought it was the responsibility of the grown children or other family members. Another 9% believed it was up to the retirees themselves, while a whopping 63% thought the burden should rest with the government.
These numbers, more extreme than every other Southeast Asia country surveyed, were not simply an intriguing snapshot of rapid modernization and shifting Confucian ethics. As the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS) documented in its 2012 report “Balancing Tradition and Modernity: The Future of Retirement in East Asia,” China faces a burgeoning national crisis with global implications as it confronts a swiftly aging population. This demographic shift—from one of the world’s youngest populations to one of its oldest— represents one of a series of challenges that raise serious questions about China’s ability to sustain rapid economic growth and maintain social and political stability.
Yet while China is still on target to become the world’s largest economy during this decade, the combination of an aging population, a significant shortage of skilled workers and managers, and a shrinking supply of usable water has the potential to destabilize leadership that has built its legitimacy on the twin pillars of rapid growth and social stability.
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