LUZHAI, China – The elderly couple sat on their metal frame bed surrounded by the detritus of their lives: hopelessly worn-out shoes, empty tin cans, dried-out corncobs, plastic bags, filthy clothes, all strewn across the uneven dirt floor. On a small table, two dirty cups sat beside an ancient television and an overturned electric fan.
Their five daughters have all moved away from the village of Luzhai in eastern China and are working with their husbands in China’s booming cities. Ma Jinling, 81, and his wife, Hou Guiying, don’t own a phone or know where their children are living; their daughters rarely visit and even more rarely help financially. The frail Ma survives, as he always has, by tending his small plot of land.
“If he doesn’t farm, we won’t have enough food to eat,” Hou, 71, said, her hair in pigtails and her hands shaking as she spoke. “When we run out of money for our medical bills, we just stop treating ourselves.
“We can live like this, it’s OK. But please, don’t let us become really ill.”
Decades of societal turmoil – radical communism followed by rampant capitalism – have frayed the ties that once bound China’s families together extremely closely. In a country famous for its Confucian traditions of filial obedience, tens of millions of elderly Chinese are being left behind by the country’s transformation, suffering poverty, illness and depression. It has become such a serious problem that the Chinese government put into effect a law in July allowing parents to sue their children if they failed to visit and support them.
“Many rural children don’t treat their parents that well,” said Zhao Yaohui, of Peking University, co-author of a recent study of the problems facing China’s oldest people. For centuries, patriarchs controlled their families’ limited resources in the countryside. But now, Zhao said, “the rural elderly don’t have that much power or property they can use to buy their children’s respect and support.”
Among China’s 185 million people older than 65, nearly one in four is living below the poverty line, more than one in three struggles with daily activities and 40 percent show significant symptoms of depression, the survey showed.
The results were worse in China’s villages than in the cities, where pensions are much higher. In rural areas, the elderly are nearly three times as likely to be poor as the average resident.
Mao Zedong’s attempts to redraw China’s society and remove all trace of its ancient traditions weakened family ties as hundreds of millions of villagers were forced to work on collective farms from 1958 onward. Loyalty to Mao was supposed to trump family bonds, and the Cultural Revolution saw close relatives denounce and humiliate each other.
Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms that followed in the 1980s failed to fully repair the damage, with communal land parceled out and separate plots leased to individual farmers. While in neighboring India, land is typically owned by the male head of the household, giving the patriarch influence over his extended family, in China, the elderly often have distinct plots of land from their children.
China’s massive rural-to-urban migration has put additional, extreme pressure on the nation’s social fabric. Whereas about 70 percent of the rural elderly lived with their adult children in 1990, that figure had fallen to 40 percent by 2006, according to a 2012 World Bank report.
The government has gradually rolled out a pension plan for rural senior citizens since 2009; a new national cooperative medical insurance system has also helped defray health care costs for old people. But the benefits are spread thinly over a vast population, and the government will struggle to fund a dramatic improvement in social welfare spending if the Chinese economy continues to slow.
Mindful of that growing burden, Premier Li Keqiang vowed last month to cut red tape to encourage foreign investment in Western-style nursing care. But this is unlikely to do much to plug the gap.
In Gonggou, Cai Wushi, 94, lives alone; her children come when she needs firewood, but otherwise she sits at home, alone, all day. “My eyes don’t work well, but I can still hear,” she said, a lone tooth protruding from her mouth. “But I am not useful any more.”