Today I would like to share with you a desperately sad story from China about another problem caused (or at least exacerbated) by the one child policy of the last 40 years.  This is the story of Zhang Zefang, the “little old lady who sued her own children for not taking care of her” as told by the Columbus Telegram.

The problem in China is one of a growing elderly population who have distant and often poor children and children and, thanks to the one child policy, not many of either of them.

“China is projected to have 636 million people over age 50 – nearly 49 percent of the population – by 2050, up from 25 percent of the population in 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. So who will care for them?

Across the world, rapidly increasing life spans have left many adults scrambling to look after their parents, their children and themselves. In China, one-child urban policies over three decades have led to even fewer working youngsters. And a lack of jobs means rural youth must leave their parents to find work in distant cities.”

This is not a problem limited to China:

“A few countries, such as India, Singapore, France and Ukraine, now require adult children to financially support their parents. Twenty-nine U.S. states have similar laws, though they are rarely enforced because the government provides aid.

In China, where family loyalty is a cornerstone of society, more than 1,000 parents have sued their children for financial support over the last 15 years. But in December, the government went further, amending its elder care law to require that children also support their parents emotionally. Children who don’t visit their parents can be sued – by mom and dad.”

And in the case of Zhang Zefang, she did sue her children – and “won”. I put won in scare quotes because it is clear from her situation that there are no winners in this story. Just a dreadfully sad old lady, an overburdened younger generation and a lack of seeing family as anything other than material and financial burdens. This is what Zhang told the reporter when visited at her youngest son’s home:

“Zhang murmurs that she wants to say something, but is afraid to talk in front of her daughter-in-law. Kuang steps outside and Zhang pleads: ‘Don’t let her know that I told you this…’

Her family locks her in this room all day. She dares not scream for help for fear she will be beaten.

She pinches her cheek hard, slaps a visitor’s arm. That’s what they do to me, she says.

Her bones ache. Her feet ache. The stench from the toilet bucket sickens her.

All she wants is to go to a nursing home, she says. But the few nursing homes in China supply only 22 beds for every 1,000 seniors, and most families can’t afford them.

Zhang has no money. She says her children took it all.”

On the other side, Zhang’s daughter-in-law contends that it is the rest of the family that is suffering through having to look after Zhang while their own desperation grows.  The trouble is that in China, much of the burden of looking after the elderly falls onto the family. The country is growing old before it has grown rich. The State cannot care for the elderly so it forces the family to do so, if necessary through enforcement by the courts. 

“After stories of elder abuse persisted, China amended its elder care law late last year to require that adult children visit and emotionally support their parents.

Court officials told Zhang she could sue her children. Then the court could force them all to care for her equally.”

Zhang has three sons and a daughter. The middle son was forced by the court to provide a monthly payment while the other three siblings take turns to look after her. The outcome:

“Zhang Zefang now temporarily lives with her eldest son, Mingde, as the court ordered.

Her new home is crowded with clutter and complaints. Mingde frets about the cost of medical care…Zhang stares vacantly at the ground as she talks.

‘I just wish I could die.’”

I think I have mentioned before that I have a friend in his early 30s who is adamant that our generation (in NZ) will have to rely on our children for care when we are elderly. We cannot rely on the State to provide the current level of care as the country ages. It will be interesting if what my friend predicts comes about – we will be reversing the trend of the last 80 years or so. No longer will people look to the State to provide for them, instead their families will have to pick up the slack. Will that result in depression, recrimination and frustration as is the case with Zhang Zefang? Or will it lead to a rediscovery that families are actually the first port of call for support – financial and emotional. Will our changing demographics invigorate or further strain the family life?

Marcus Roberts was two years out of law school when he decided that practising law was no longer for him. He therefore went back to university and did his LLM while tutoring. He now teaches contract and...