“If he doesn’t farm, we won’t have enough food to eat,” said Hou, 71, 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 okay. 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. Indeed, 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 one another.
Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms 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 and their children often have distinct plots of land.