New houses, often clad in shiny ceramic tiles, have sprung up everywhere. Built by villagers who have left for migrant work in the cities, many homes lie vacant. In between them nestle tiny, tumbledown red-brick houses. “If you see a house in very bad condition, it must have old people living in it,” said local doctor Cai Rucai.
In Gonggou, 87-year-old Dou Shengli lives with his 85-year-old wife, He Xiuying, in a typically shambolic one-room house.
Although they have two sons living nearby, and three daughters, the couple gets little help with their living expenses and medical costs.
“They have their own families to look after — if they have money, they spend it on themselves and nobody takes care of us,” said He, a folded washcloth over her grizzled hair in the late summer heat. “My first son wants to build a new house, and even came to ask us for money.”
The couple survives on the government’s modest rural pension of 60 yuan (less than $10) a month. “I don’t have money to buy vegetables,” she said, “so we just grow what we can.”
The rapid aging of China’s society is one of its most profound economic challenges. By 2053, the number of senior citizens is expected to grow to 487 million, or 35 percent of the population, compared with just over 12 percent now, according to the China National Committee on Aging. There will be more retired Chinese people than the entire U.S. population by that date.
But even before then, the country faces the prospect of growing old before it grows rich. Chinese citizens who have grown up under the one-child policy could end up caring for two parents and four grandparents each as they enter late middle age, a potentially crippling economic burden.
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 2012, in another attempt to repair the damage of its own social engineering, the Chinese government updated a 700-year-old collection of well-known folk stories showing examples of how children — mostly sons — showed their devotion to their parents. Instead of romantic tales like “He Strangled a Tiger to Save His Father” or the more mundane “He Picked Mulberries to Serve His Mother,” the new government directives suggested that children take their parents on vacation, call them on the weekend or teach them how to use the Internet. But it is far from clear that anyone took notice.
Indeed, the government’s own rules are still regressive; strict residence registration requirements force migrant workers to leave their parents behind in the villages, because the elderly can access state medical benefits only if they stay at home.
In the end, most of the burden of caring for China’s old folk will inevitably fall on their children. Many Chinese children still care for their parents much better than many of their counterparts in the West — and not because the government tells them to. But it is equally clear that the old assumptions about loyal Chinese sons are no longer as uniformly valid as they once might have been.
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 anymore.”
Liu Liu contributed to this report.