Debate: Aging population

(China Daily)
Updated: 2011-01-10 08:04
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Two scholars suggest ways to deal with the rising number of elderly people in China.

Mu Guangzong

Senior citizens need better treatment

The draft law on senior citizens, which requires people to visit their aged parents regularly to help fulfill their emotional and spiritual needs, indicates that taking care of senior citizens has become a serious problem in China.

An aging population reflects a country's advancement in science and technology, and higher standards of living. But it poses a challenge, too, for it creates new problems for the country.

The number of people aged 60 years and above in China has risen to 160 million, or more than 12 percent of the total population. An aging society, according to international standards, is one that has more than 10 percent of its population above the age of 60.

The number of aging people in China is likely to increase until it reaches to about 240 million, 17 percent of the population in 2020, when the country will have about 30 million people over the age of 80. China's economic and social structure and function are still in the reformatory stage and, hence, cannot keep pace with the rising number of elderly people.

To begin with, China has the largest population of aged people in the world. Surprisingly, it took only 18 years for the China's population to transform from relatively young to aging. In contrast, it took several decades or even more than a century for such a transition to take place in developed countries. China's aging population also has different sets of problems in different areas.

China's pension and welfare systems are not yet strong enough to deal with an aging population. When developed countries encountered an aging population, their per capita GDP was between $5,000 and $10,000, but China's was only $806 in 1999 when 10 percent of its people passed the age of 60. China's per capita GDP may be nearly $4,000 now, but it is still below what it was in Western countries' when they first encountered an aging population. As my fellow researcher Zheng Bingwen, of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, calculated in July, China now needs another 1.3 trillion yuan ($196 billion) to ensure that its aged people get enough pensions to lead a decent life.

The situation is even more severe in the countryside, where an increasing number of senior citizens are left to fend for themselves as the younger people migrate into cities in search of "greener pastures". Apart from more pension funds, China also needs more human and material resources to provide for its aging population.

The country has about 38,000 care homes for the elderly, which have about 2.4 million beds. That means only about 15 beds are available for every 1,000 senior citizens in China compared with 50 to 70 in Western countries. The tragedy is that 20 percent of the available beds in China lie vacant because of the economic and other problems that aged people in the country face. To build social security and service systems for senior citizens, the government should first try to find out what exactly old people and their families need. In the macro background of the aging population, a popular practice across the globe is shifting the focus from family support to building professional centers for senior citizens. Such centers require the government to provide financial support and a strict monitoring to ensure quality service.

At a time when socialized care services are being developed further, the government needs to think seriously about what its responsibilities are and what role it can play to help the elderly.

Responsibility is an important factor. The liability of taking care of the elderly should be shared by individuals, families, organizations and the government. But the government has a social and historical responsibility to play the leading role. Perhaps the government's greatest challenge is the developing nature of the national economy and the building of more old age homes.

Compared with many Western countries that faced the problem of aging populations after becoming developed economies, China is still a developing country and thus has fewer resources to provide for its aged people. That's why it cannot build old age homes and other facilities for senior citizens at the pace that its population is aging.

Broadly speaking, the government has three roles to play. Its first role should be as a designer and provider of pension services, the second as promoter of socialization, standardization, and professionalization of the services for senior citizens, and the third as constructor and supervisor of the services - taking care of the system to deal with the differences between urban and rural areas, and different age groups of the elderly people.

Since China has to deal with an aging population without having the advantage of a developed economy its care system and services for the elderly may stay at a relatively low level for a while. So, the government needs to strike a balance among equity, quality and efficiency.

The author is a professor at the Institution of Population Research, Peking University.

Jiang Xiangqun

Rural elderly at a disadvantage

The aging population in China's countryside should be treated on a priority basis when it comes to caring for senior citizens. History shows the "industrial population" benefits earlier than people engaged in agriculture from a country's facilities to help senior citizens. In fact, social security itself is the product of industrialization and the socialization of production.

About 70 percent of the people aged 60 or above in China live in the countryside, and the number of young people moving from rural to urban areas is more than 10 million a year. This means the rate of increase in the number of aging people in rural areas is worryingly faster than in urban areas. That apart, retirement or old-age social security for the young and middle-aged rural workers is also a rising concern because only about 15 percent of them have social security insurance.

The agenda of establishing and developing social security for aged people in rural areas has gained urgency in China because agricultural production has been going through the process of socialization and modernization, and elderly people are not being taken care of properly with younger members of their families having migrated to cities in search of jobs. The limits imposed by low-level traditional agricultural economic conditions and the differences in rural and urban structures have been blocking the development of a socialized security system for the aged in the countryside. This poses a great challenge

The first problem is the narrow coverage of social insurance. Less than 8 percent of the people aged between 20 and 60 are insured for old age insurance. And in the countryside, most elderly people are not part of the social security system.

The social security insurance itself is not as helpful and dependable as it should have been. The national average of old-age security pension is about 1,350 yuan ($204) a year. This amount is just enough to provide the basic necessities of life rather than being a guarantee to leading a decent life. When we consider the regional economic differences in the country, some elderly people in remote rural, less-developed areas get 200 yuan to 400 yuan a year, which is not enough to provide for even their basic necessities.

The introduction of a social security system to the countryside is a social cause, which has ironically been propelled by two contradictory factors. One, China's economic base is not strong enough to set up a social security system for aged people in the countryside. Two, a sound social security system is needed more urgently than ever in the countryside because urbanization and other factors are shrinking cultivable land, and the family planning policy has left a majority of today's senior citizens with fewer offspring to depend on, and more young people are moving from rural areas to cities for jobs.

To develop socialized services for an old-age security system is a natural outcome of a society's transformation from traditional to modern. Since about 60 percent of the country's 1.3 billion people still live in rural areas, setting up a social security system for this large group is of crucial importance for China's reform and opening-up, and modernization. China's social security system will be incomplete if it does not cover every corner of the countryside. It will be an impediment to building a well-off society, too.

The government has to shoulder the heaviest responsibility to build an all-pervasive social security system because of the backwardness of economic conditions in rural areas. First, the government has to provide the funds, even though rural social security payment should start at a relatively low level because of financial constraints and to ensure that every senior citizen is covered by the system.

Second, the setting up and development of a rural social security system for aged people should be co-launched with the handing out of family planning subsidies. Senior citizens with one offspring, and family members of revolutionaries and martyrs should be treated as special cases, and elderly people in dire straits should be provided more help.

Third, the time-honored custom of family support for old people should be strengthened, though it involves a variety of issues, such as higher payment and social welfare for rural workers, and making transportation between cities and the countryside more convenient. This will require the central government to treat the countryside on a priority basis when it comes to social and economic policies.

And fourth, since social security and services for senior citizens depend largely on local personnel, the setting up of grassroots rural organizations should be encouraged and funded to help the elderly population.

The author is an associate professor at the School of Sociology and Population Studies, Renmin University of China.

The above stories are excerpts of interviews by Mu Guangzong and Jiang Xiangqun with China Daily's He Bolin.

Debate: Aging population