‘Grey wall of China’: town on front­line of age­ing cri­sis keeps its el­derly happy

The Guardian Weekly - - INTERNATIO­NAL NEWS - Rudong di­ary Tom Phillips Ad­di­tional re­port­ing by Christy Yao

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

Tom Phillips

Mu­sic mas­ter … stu­dents learn the flute in a mu­sic class at Rudong’s Univer­sity of the Aged

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