Written by Jieyu Liu.

Like many countries, population ageing is a significant area of concern for policy makers in China. However, unlike western countries, the ageing trend has set in whilst China is still relatively poor (at least in terms of the GDP per capita). In 2014 the number of people in China who were 60 years old and over had reached 200 million (15 per cent of the population). It is estimated that by 2050, this number will exceed 400 million (35 per cent of the population). The rapid population ageing will create significant social and economic challenges. However, the impact is uneven and differentiated in urban and rural areas due to a long institutionalized urban-rural divide.

One child policy, implications and modifications in urban China

Alongside increasing life expectancy (driven by improved living standards), the state’s family planning policy, widely known as the ‘one-child policy’ has exaggerated the ageing trend. This policy was formally introduced in 1979 in response to concerns that uncontrolled population growth would jeopardize economic development and modernization, and has been strictly and effectively implemented in urban areas through workplace fines and punishment ever since (Liu 2007). However, 36 years on, the first generation of one child policy children have now become parents themselves and this new generation must support two parents and four grandparents (the 4-2-1 issue).

To address this urban inverse population pyramid, in 2013 the state introduced the ‘two child’ policy. Under the new policy, urban families are allowed to have two children if one parent is an only child. However, in the last two years, only a small proportion of couples (5 to 10 per cent) have taken up this option due to factors such as the costs of raising a second child and perceived insufficient/inadequate provision of childcare either by the state or the market. As one of my women interviewees put it, ‘there are basically no kindergartens available for children under the age of 3. My parents and my in-laws [who helped to look after our first child] are getting old so they won’t be able to provide further care. So what can we do? I can’t give up working as we need two salaries to provide a proper education for our first child’.

With the growing new middle-class, the need for good quality care institutions for ageing parents is increasing and in major cities people struggle to win a place at the most popular old people’s homes (there is one in Beijing with a waiting list of 100 years). One male interviewee (university educated professional) told me how he hoped for old age support for his parents: ‘I feel the government should build more care facilities for old people. I am willing to take on the financial responsibility to pay for the care. In that case, parents will have people to look after them. We don’t need to accompany them all the time so we can focus upon our own career development’.

Left behind elderly in rural China

Due to considerable resistance in rural areas to the original one-child policy, in the mid-1980s the state allowed rural couples to have a second child if their first was a girl. Because of this difference in policy, combined with a shorter generational span (i.e. it remains common for women to have their first child in their early 20s), rural households do not have the same demographic structure as urban families. On average, the cohort over 60 has 3 or 4 adult children, whilst parents of younger cohorts have 2.

Despite the more favourable dependency ratio, rural China is facing three urgent demographic issues. First, as a result of the 1958 household registration system (Hukou), rural residents have long been deprived various entitlements and welfare provisions that are only available to urban residents. Therefore, the family carries a heavy burden of support in old age.

Second, accelerated by economic reforms, a large scale migration of younger workers from rural to urban areas has taken place since the 1990s. This has geographically separated many adult children from their ageing parents and poses significant challenges to traditional patterns of familial support for rural older people. The lived experiences of growing older in rural China are rapidly changing with villages being mainly populated by older people and children with a smaller number of adult children living in the villages. One rural grandmother, reflecting upon her experience of looking after five of her grandchildren explained that she had previously looked after five children but not cared for three after two had moved location to attend a better middle school. Discussing the period the children were younger she explained, ‘at that time, there was only one year and a half difference in age between the youngest granddaughter and grandson. Often I couldn’t eat my meals when I was looking after them. After you finished feeding this one, you had to feed the others. Often they were crying. It took ages to feed them. When the feeding was done, my meal was cold and I didn’t have the appetite to eat’.

Third, the skewed sex ratio and the gendered cultural practice of marriage (i.e. women marry up the social ladder), rural men from poor households increasingly have great difficulty finding wives. As one rural mother put it, ‘there are not enough girls in our village and nearby villages. In addition to paying for the wedding expenses and providing for the marital house, we paid a bride price of over 10,000 yuan [double their annual income] for our son’s marriage’. As a result purchasing wives from nearby Vietnam has gradually become a practice in some rural areas.

During my fieldwork in rural villages in China, I observed that most rural households still did not have basic sanitary facilities and schools and hospitals were inadequate. Therefore, there is a very strong and urgent need for basic infrastructure development.

Rapid population ageing will create significant social and economic challenges. However, the impact is uneven over urban and rural areas because of a long institutionalized urban-rural divide.

An earlier version of this piece appeared in China-Britain Business Council magazine Focus, 2016, 48(6). 

Jieyu Liu is the deputy director of the SOAS China Institute. She gained her PhD from the University of York and had taught at Sussex (Gender Studies and Sociology), Glasgow (Sociology) and Leeds (East Asian Studies) before taking up her present post. Trained as a feminist sociologist, Dr Liu specialises in sociology of gender with a regional focus on China and other East Asian societies. She has published widely on gender, sexuality and socio-economic development in China.

Image Credit: CC by H Chang/Flickr.