These young couples are part of the generation of only children born during the 34 years of China’s “one-child policy.” Following the typical pattern, they migrated to the larger cities from the outlying provinces to go to university. They stayed for work and then got married.
And now they must decide which set of parents to visit. It’s a decision fraught with emotion, especially for China’s growing elderly population, often living alone and far from their children, who historically have been caregivers in a country with little social safety net.
“Both of us want to go back to our home to celebrate Chinese New Year,” said Lin Youlan, 30, a government worker who married her husband, Li Haibin, 33, four years ago. “We always fight about this problem.”
She is from Chongqing in southwest China, and he is from Shandong, on China’s east coast. They live in Beijing, and they are only children.
As the only son, Li is under intense pressure to visit his parents, who are not in good health. “In Shandong province, men must celebrate the Spring Festival with their own families. And the wives should spend the Lunar New Year at their husbands’ homes,” he said. “I worry how others will look at my parents if I don’t go back home every year.”
Traditionally, the Lunar New Year’s Eve and the first day of the new year — which are Jan. 22 and 23 this year — were spent at the home of the husband’s parents, and the second day was spent with the wife’s. But in those days, married couples largely came from the same village or town or a relatively short distance apart.
Now China’s 1.3 billion people are mobile and rapidly urbanizing. The government announced Tuesday that the country’s urban population had surpassed those living in rural areas, although just a quarter of the population lived in cities in 1990.
That shift, coupled with the one-child policy and other societal changes, has left tens of millions of elderly people living alone, often with little in the way of government aid. China has few nursing homes and no tradition of professional caretakers to look after the elderly when they become infirm.
China has 178 million people who are 60 or older, according to government census figures. Li Liguo, the minister of social affairs, said that number will jump to 216 million, or 16.7 percent of the population, by 2015. At that time, Li said, there will be 51 million “empty nesters” 65 or older and living alone.
And as the older population is growing, China’s current birthrate — 1.54 children per woman — is considered far below the normal replacement rate, which is two children per woman. (The rate in the United States is 2.06).