Shades of grey

A worrying vision of China’s future exists in Rudong

A 73-year-old local woman pauses as she prays for good fortune outside Dafo Temple on the Lantern Festival in Zhengding County

Rudong’s grey economy

According to China’s media the people of Rudong county in the eastern province of Jiangsu are famous for their longevity, their commitment to family planning and their focus on education.

Its sounds like a recipe for a prosperous and even faintly Scandinavian society.

But that’s not quite how it has worked out. Rudong is the ‘oldest’ county in China, with 28% of its population over 60 years old. Many of them are lonely and depressed.

According to a recent study from Wuhan University, places like Rudong have seen a significant rise in suicides among older people. “Perhaps this is the particular way they have chosen to relieve their misery in an aging society,” sociology professor Liu Yanwu, the report’s author, told the People’s Daily.

According to a new government policy paper on aging, 30% of the Chinese population will be over 60 by 2050. At least 79 million of them will be childless, because they did not have children or because their only child died before them.

That is part of the problem in Rudong, says New Weekly. The county was one of the pilots for the one-child-policy, meaning restrictions have been in place longer there and enforced to a greater degree. For instance, the article recounts how one couple were not permitted to have another child after their boy died of leukaemia. Other parents have become reclusive after losing their adult children.

Others in Rudong have little contact with their children because they have moved away. Yes, local education is good. But with few industries capable of employing capable students, only a small percentage moves back.

All of this presents the authorities with a conundrum – how to care for their aging population, especially when the locals often live well into their eighties, as a result of the sea air and healthy diet?

The expectation nationally is that 90% of people will be able to care for themselves or will be cared for by their families in their old age, with just 10% needing support from third parties. But all of that needs funding and local governments are already having to plunder their reserves for future commitments to fund today’s payouts.

“We believe the structure of China’s pension system at present is inadequate to support the nation’s pension needs over even the next five years,” a finance analyst told a recent conference on the topic in Beijing. And longer term, the metrics look even more stretched. Another study, this one by the Paulson Institute, has pointed out that China is moving from a situation where there are 4.9 people of working age for each person over 60 to a ratio of 1.6 workers to 1 pensioner by 2050.

The problem – as it is now commonly defined – is that China is growing old before it gets rich.

“The speed of the Chinese transition means that it is in the unenviable position of having to deal with the negative implications of these demographic shifts at a substantially lower level of per capita income. China will be one of the first countries to grow older as a developing country,” the Paulson report warns.

In Rudong the isolation of some of its older inhabitants is more apparent in tragic individual experiences. New Weekly talks of the case of Zhu Benning, a 73 year-old who lived alone. When he died this year, his body was undiscovered for three days until his landlord broke into his flat.

And in the meantime Rudong’s population continues to grey. A former senior official for the county told a TV programme that more than 50% of its population would be elderly by 2035.

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