BEIJING - In 10 years as head of an elder-care center in Confucius' hometown of Qufu, Yang Youling has seen the Chinese philosopher's exhortation of filial piety turned on its head.
Many children never visit their aged parents in the 50-bed home in eastern China's Shandong province to avoid being criticized for not taking care of them, said Yang, 47. "The children are ashamed of being seen," she said.
They will soon have a new deterrent. From July 1 onward, parents in China can sue their kids who don't visit often enough, under a broadened law mandating children take better care of the aged. With China's elderly population forecast to more than double to 487 million in the next 40 years, the government needs to try to limit the cost of caring for seniors.
"China's aging problem is at a scale and speed not comparable with anywhere else in the world," said Yuan Xin, director of Nankai University's Aging Development Strategy Research Center in Tianjin, and a member of an advisory committee on the new rule. "My concern is how we can have sustainable economic development" while maintaining Confucian values such as respect and care for one's parents, he said.
Traditionally, children lived with their parents and looked after them in accordance with Confucian beliefs. The sixth-century Chinese philosopher emphasized filial piety as the foundation of all values and placed great importance on harmony and a proper order of social relationships, especially within families.
That relationship has eroded as China's one-child policy has increased the burden on the sole offspring and people have moved to cities in pursuit of jobs.
In response, the government passed amendments to the Law for the Protection of the Rights and Interests of the Elderly on Dec. 28 to include the visitation requirement and a stipulation that employers approve the necessary leave, without specifying how often the visits should be.
The law enables the elderly to seek legal recourse and prohibits "discrimination, insult, ill-treatment and abandonment" of the aged.
China also assigned a symbolic Elderly Day under the legislation and said it will improve long-term-care services and benefits for senior citizens.
"Old people left alone at home are very lonely and lack both physical and psychological care, so it's actually better to live in a home like ours where we have people to care for them," said Yang, director of the Xiyanghong Elderly Home that she set up in 2002, near a 2,500-year-old temple honoring Confucius.
"But some think their children put them in the home because they don't want them anymore."
Besides an effort to preserve tradition, the rules are an economic necessity to limit the state's burden. China's working-age citizens ages 15 to 59 fell as a share of the population last year, and the National Committee on Aging estimates people 60 years and older will rise to 487 million by 2053 from 185 million in 2011.
"The pace and scale of demographic and social change is so great most families simply do not have traditional options anymore, so change is inevitable," said Feng Zhanlian, a Waltham, Mass.-based health analyst at RTI International. Feng is co-author of a study on China's policy challenges amid a rapidly aging population.