‘Grey wall of China’: town on frontline of ageing crisis keeps its elderly happy
It has been dubbed the “grey wall of China”, a demographic shift so big you can almost see it from space. The world’s most populous country is getting old. Plummeting birthrates, the result of the one-child policy, and improved life expectancy mean that by 2050 more than a quarter of China’s population – almost 500 million people – will be over 65.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in Rudong county, two hours’ drive north of Shanghai, where as many as 30% of the 1 million inhabitants are over 60. This is a place from the future that many ageing western nations could learn from, with its proliferating retirement homes, its jobs for older workers and, yes, its University of the Aged.
On a dull Tuesday morning, dozens of older people have gathered in a school building to play a stirring rendition of Beethoven’s Ninth. “We come here for happiness and joy!” beams Yu Bing, a sprightly 72-yearold who is among the silver-haired students in classroom 301 using Chinese hulusi flutes to perform the 19th-century symphony.
Yu, a retired doctor who lives nearby with her 80-year-old husband, Zhang Fanshen, is one of about 570 students at the university, a government-funded centre that offers the region’s elderly citizens classes in everything from Latin dance steps to how to use smartphones. “Even though we’re not young in age, we are happy,” says Yu, whose flute lessons are part of a weekly schedule of activities that also includes dawn dancing and percussion sessions, calligraphy classes and painting workshops. “There’s so much to do – we enjoy life here.”
The university is on the frontline in a fight against one of the most potentially destabilising problems facing China: a demographic crisis that experts believe will have major implications for everything from the wellbeing of hundreds of millions of citizens to the Communist party’s ability to hold on to power.
Rudong is a sleepy rural backwater in Jiangsu province where the ageing crisis has already arrived, the greyest corner of this rapidly ageing nation. Retirement homes are springing up across the county to cater for its growing ranks of elderly people – while secondary schools close for a lack of young people.
The explanation for Rudong’s premature ageing crisis lies in the fact that it was an early testing ground for the one-child policy. Draconian family planning regulations came into force in Rudong in the 1960s, long before they were introduced across China, in 1980, in an effort to avoid a calamitous explosion in the size of its population. This, combined with many young people not returning after university, has meant that Rudong’s population has been shrinking for almost two decades.
Officials shrugged off the sugges- tion their town was grappling with an ageing crisis. “We don’t feel it is a big problem,” said Miao Rumei, 75, the University of the Aged’s deputy head. “We haven’t felt we are lacking a workforce.” But Chen Youhua, a Nanjing University sociologist born and raised in Rudong, said the problems were all too real. The soaring number of pensioners has placed “massive pressure” on Rudong’s social services, Chen said. Its economy, meanwhile, was suffering from a crippling labour shortage, with businesses struggling to find staff.
Almost as striking as the lack of young faces on its streets are the senior citizens who can be seen tending to fields, staffing shops, driving taxis or, like 72-year-old Ge Fangping, giving lessons at the University of the Aged. “Old people can’t stand loneliness,” says Ge, an elegant multi-instrumentalist who gives weekly music classes with his erhu, a two-stringed Chinese fiddle on which he teaches Chinese standards such as the Butterfly Lovers. “After I came here, I felt hope again. I didn’t feel old any more,” says Ge, who has worked at the university for almost a decade and lives nearby with his 54-year-old son.
Wang Feng – a University of California, Irvine, scholar and one of the leading experts on Chinese demographics – said he believed Beijing would face its citizens’ fury once they understood the burden the one-child policy had placed on the elderly, deprived of the offspring who might have cared for them, and the young, who would have to pay higher taxes to support the old.
Mark Haas, a political scientist from Pennsylvania’s Duquesne University, believes the ageing population is likely to have a global impact, potentially even helping to guarantee peace on earth. His argument, which he calls the “geriatric peace”, is that as spending on welfare for the elderly skyrockets, Beijing will be forced to slash its defence budget and will become less able, and therefore less likely, to attempt any military challenge to the US.
China’s silver tsunami might help prevent a third world war, but there will be a human cost. Wang said the unequal pension system and patchy healthcare meant that “the less privileged, the more vulnerable, are going to be hit the hardest”.
Old people can’t stand loneliness. After I came here, I felt hope again. I didn’t feel old any more
Music master … students learn the flute in a music class at Rudong’s University of the Aged