FEATURE: China's population puzzle

Before it gets rich, China will go grey. Within two decades, more than one-third of China's population will be aged over 60.

It is a demographic challenge for Beijing that's been exacerbated by the country's one child policy, and it's reshaping China one family at a time.

A third of China's population is expected to be 60 years and older by 2030. [Reuters]

A third of China's population is expected to be 60 years and older by 2030. [Reuters]

VIDEO from Newsline

China's ageing population, a demographic challenge

Created: 01/05/2012

Huey Fern Tay, Beijing

Last Updated: Tue, 1 May 2012 14:40:00 +1000

Every Sunday, a group of elderly Chinese gather at a park opposite the Forbidden City to sing songs from old movies and songs about the revolution.

The rich chorus soars high into the sky beyond the palace walls.

People like Mr Ju have been doing this faithfully for many years, evoking a sense of nostalgia for the good old days.

"We've been singing these songs since we were young," he said.

"We used to sing them at school and at work. And we're still singing these songs now we're retired."

Healthy ageing is a lifestyle that's being promoted in China, home to the largest elderly population in the world.

A third of the country's population is expected to be 60 years and older by 2030.

Living standards have improved greatly, but with it comes the challenge of three decades of the one-child policy.

Zhu Lin, deputy director of Songtang Hospice, says the policy has reduced the once huge extended family network which the elderly used to rely on.

"Many young couples have four old people to take care of," he said.

"This is a huge pressure on society."

China doesn't have a comprehensive pension or welfare scheme for its elderly.

But taking care of the elderly is also a Confucian value that's drummed into every Chinese family, which is why when Songtang Hospice opened 25 years ago, there was strong resistance from the community.

Zhu Lin, remembers the time when Songtang was the only one in the country.

"In the past people were afraid of being reprimanded by their neighbours for sending their parents or grandparents to facilities like ours, because they would be seen as failing in their duty," he said.

"But gradually people have come to realise institutions like ours can help them accomplish many things."

Private businesses are gradually cashing on the so-called silver market by building more and more nursing homes.

The government is also in a race against time to do something, from providing more day care centres for the elderly to beefing up its pension scheme.

But there's also been some suggestion that perhaps Beijing needs to increase its retirement age and abandon its one child policy.

The last proposal hasn't won over Wu Camping.

Dubbed China's population guru, 90-year-old Mr Wu is widely revered in the country for pioneering population research in the early 70s.

"Even you relax [the one child policy], it is impossible to cope with the ageing problem," he said.

"It takes time. You know you have to bring up the children, how many years, 20 or 40 years, two generations at least."

The long-term plan is to beef up the country's pension system, especially in the rural areas, where an ageing population has been made more acute by the wave of young villagers who leave every year for better opportunities in the city.

But local governments across the country are struggling to fund the bulk of the system.

There's an urgent need for China to strengthen its social safety net - not only because its people need it, but also because a stronger welfare system will give people the confidence to spend more.

And that could bring China closer to its goal of economic growth led by domestic consumption, rather than exports.


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