The fast-ageing process has placed a burden on traditional Chinese family-supporting pension mechanisms in rural areas. Deputies attending the National People's Congress (NPC) are urging the government to build a social security system for old people in rural areas, covering basic living costs and medical expenses.
The latest national census in 2000 showed that among the 133 million people aged over 60 in China, more than 85.57 million are in the countryside. The countryside has a faster ageing process than cities around 1.23 percent higher and the gap will not be closed until 2040, said a recent report on China's ageing process released by the China Ageing Committee in February.
Different from developed countries, China has a higher level of old people in the countryside, rather than in cities, said Li Bengong, an official of the committee, as quoted by Xinhua News Agency, adding that the countryside, especially in western China, faces a great ageing pressure.
While the majority of the elderly in cities are covered by the social security system, the elderly in rural areas are usually forced to depend on their offspring for their living and health care expenses.
The lack of pensions, the burden of diseases, and the reliance on the children's sense of family responsibility, lead to an unsatisfactory, or even terrible, life for the older rural population.
Experts at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences estimate that 9 percent of the rural senior population is living in poverty. However, deputies from the countryside said they saw a more serious poverty problem.
"Some old people are living very badly. They don't have money to treat disease. In some cases, their families are too poor to provide enough food," said Yang Shaojun, NPC deputy from Central China's Hunan Province.
"The government shall build an aiding system for rural people over 75 years old, who usually can't take any labor work. The support shall start with basic living costs."
Currently, an aiding system sponsored by the central government is available in 15 provinces, covering more than 7 million rural people. However, the aid is mostly for farmers who are hit by disasters.
Chen conducted a four-month survey on the living conditions of old people in a county in Hunan, where two-thirds of poor families raise one or two old people over 75 years old. In Taiping Village of the county, 115 villagers are over 75 years old, 70 percent of them are badly sick and their families are extremely poor. The monthly 15 yuan (US$1.87) subsidy from the government for poor farmers is not enough to meet their needs.
Yang gave an example of 82-year-old Lin Shiqing and his wife, aged 81, living with their son's family. The family's total annual income, around 4,800 yuan (US$600), is not enough to support six family members, with the old couple and their son sick. The family already owes a debt of 4,000 yuan (US$500).
"The family-planning policy is difficult to be applied in the countryside, and one major reason is that farmers are worried about their life when they get old," Yang said.
Besides poverty and sickness, there are not enough people in the countryside who can take care of old people, because many young people go to the cities to make a living. Statistics from the Ministry of Civil Affairs show that by the end of last year, the country's some 32,000 old people's homes in rural areas hosted 632,000 people, but is still far from meeting all the needs.
"What the old people need, more than money, is more emotional support from their children," said Peng Zhenqiu, NPC deputy from Shanghai. "More calls and visits are necessary to resolve old people's loneliness."
(China Daily March 9, 2006)