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UPDATED: 11:04, June 10, 2004
China seeks way to care for the aged
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Even though government officials are engaged in handling statistics and reports on the overheated economy and high unemployment rates, some experts warn that China will soon face problems brought by its rapidly aging population unless timely effective measures are taken.

China has the world's largest elderly population, with 134 million people over 60 years old, a figure that is likely to hit 400 million by the middle of this century.

"A flawed population structure has turned out to be a knotty issue for many developed nations, and now it befalls China, which is still a developing country," said Zhang Yi, a veteran demographic expert with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS).

A sample investigation in 2001 said 7.83 percent of Chinese people were above 65 and in 2020 the proportion would rise to 12 percent.

The aging process is speeded up especially in the cities as theone-child policy was adopted in the 1970s, and more couples now tend to postpone pregnancy or not to have babies at all, said Zhang.

Implementation of the one-child policy in the past decades successfully prevented fast population growth, but it also expedited the aging process of the demographic structure.

As most experts foresee, some twenty years from now, a young couple will have to look after at least four parents from both families and then caring for the elderly will not be a family issue but a social one.

Guo Shuzhen, a 62-year-old widow, lives in a single-room apartment at a seaside rest home in Dalian, a famous scenic city in the northeast, and a typical day for her involves walking on the seashore, watching TV or playing mah-jong.

"I can find almost no topics to talk about with young people and I would rather live by myself," she said.

Unlike others living there who share a room to cut the fees, Guo enjoys a single room which costs 1,580 yuan (190 US dollars) per month, equivalent to the salary of a middle class office clerkin the city. Guo pays roughly 30 percent of the rent with her pension and the rest is covered by her five grown-up sons and daughters.

More than two decades ago when the nation was still under the planned economy, it was considered a shame to send an older parent to a rest home, which was then prepared for those who had no families or income.

Nowadays, however, China has over 50,000 organizations, state-owned or private, providing care for senior citizens. More and more young people are occupied by office work and housework, and some do not want to care for their parents at all.

Experts of social work compared China with Japan for both facing pressures from the rising amount of the elderly. Japan, as a prosperous industrialized nation, has nearly set up a nationwide social security umbrella covering its old people while China still doesn't have one yet, they said.

In the late 1990s, the Chinese authority started to construct a mechanism under which a fund of social insurance was established by the government to offer employed people pensions after their retirement. Yet it was far from enough.

First, the fund only covers the full-time workers whose employers are willing to pay their share of the fund, which makes only 17 percent of the labor population in the nation eligible forthe pensions. As for the masses of rural people who have no regular jobs, they have no pensions at all.

Also, criticism rose in the past years over the management of the fund and the central government had to reiterate rules on the issue and warned against embezzlement and ill management.

The fast-growing elderly population is likely to become a hurdle for China's overall development if efficient measures are not taken in time, said Yang Tuan, a CASS scholar on demography, adding that the most important thing now is to find out as soon as possible a remedy suitable for China's situation.

The Ministry of Civil Affairs kicked off a "Starlight Project" to build a community-based service for elderly people as investigation indicates most of them prefer staying at a familiar place. Altogether 20,000 service stations have been set up in some600 cities with investment totaling 5 billion yuan (602 million USdollars) since the project was initiated in 2001.

The authority also proposes encouraging policies for individual investors and entrepreneurs in this field. In northeast Dalian, some 50 new rest homes, most of them privately-owned, were opened in the past few years.

"The senior citizens have demands for their life too, and what I am doing is to meet the demand," said Jia Gangcheng, an investorfrom the northeast Jilin province, who just founded a company in Dalian providing service for elderly tourists to the city.

Starting with simple business such as travel consultancy, medical check and diet supply, Jia is quite optimistic about the future. "It will be a big industry and many people will see that in a few years," he said.

Source: Xinhua

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