Beijing takes on grey area

Capital city looks to move out its senior residents

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

From hutong to Hebei

Out with the old, in with the new – or at least, that seems to describe the attitude of the Beijing municipal government. In the past that has generally described the Chinese capital’s attitude to older buildings, favouring flashy glass skyscrapers over hutongs. But now it seems to apply to people too.

The state broadcaster CCTV reported last month that Beijing’s local government was piloting a scheme to subsidise the living expenses of senior residents if they moved to care homes in neighbouring cities.

There were more than 3 million older citizens (aged over 60) in Beijing at the end of 2015. That accounts for 23% of Beijing’s registered population, CCTV reported. However, there is little room to provide more public care facilities in the increasingly congested city. In fact, plans have been put in place to move some less important government departments to nearby Baoding (see WiC231).

On the plus side for Beijing’s city planners, there is a surplus supply of homes for the elderly in Hebei province, and in the nearby municipality of Tianjin.

Arrangements will be made so that public insurance will cover the medical expenses of elderly people in the two districts, the capital’s civil affairs authority said.

One reason for the move, says the South China Morning Post, is that 80% of Beijing’s elderly live in the central part of the city. Other residents complain that senior citizens overcrowd public transport and public services there. “[There are] too many elderly people around here in old central Beijing,” one citizen told the Hong Kong-based newspaper.

However, Beijing’s older citizens have been dismissive of the proposal. “I enjoy my retirement in Beijing. I don’t want to go elsewhere,” one retired construction worker told the SCMP. “I helped build Beijing and I have a home here. Now if they say I’d better rest in Hebei I feel it’s only because I am retired and of no use.”

The news once again highlights the issue of China’s rapidly aging population, and what it means in practical terms. It is also a reminder of the business opportunity that is opening up in the silver-hair industry. China Briefing predicts the sector will surpass real estate as the nation’s largest industry within 15 years – and that foreign companies are well-suited to provide the best quality services for the country’s aging population.

This is all a fairly major social change for the country. In the Confucian tradition, responsibility for the care of the elderly falls upon their offspring: an arrangement that is even legislated under Chinese marriage law (and more recently in a separate law introduced in 2013, see WiC202). Due to this tradition, Chinese healthcare groups have less experience in providing elderly care services than their US and European peers. Indeed, in order to boost investment in the sector the government has withdrawn a rule that required foreign providers of palliative care to partner with local companies, instead allowing them to operate wholly-owned enterprises.

Some interesting alternative solutions have been picked up by the media. In Fujian province, for instance, Jixiang Temple has been transformed into a haven for elderly residents abandoned by both their children and by the state.

“It’s heartbreaking when we go to pick up these people from their homes because some of them have been sick for a long time,” Neng Qing, the 81 year-old manager of the Buddhist temple told the BBC. “They’re in such bad health that we have to carry them out on a stretcher, but then we nurse them back to health.”

At the temple, residents follow a strict regimen of studying texts and chanting, as well as helping one another with basic chores. Unlike in a standard care home, there is a greater emphasis on self-cultivation and mutual support, whereby some of the residents become the carers themselves.

Sadly, it’s not a model that looks likely to be scalable in a country where more than 40% of the population is predicted to be over 60 by 2050.

Nor does it look like Beijing’s pilot scheme to relocate the elderly will prove a straightforward sell. Lu Jiehua, a professor at Peking University, told the SCMP: “This is a case of government’s blind willingness with little effect. Elderly people will only feel they are unwanted and the target of a population relocation campaign.”

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