Thursday, January 15, 2015

Schools and retirement homes as windows into rural China's decline (and the legacy of the one-child policy)

NPR reported last week from Rudong County in Jiangsu Province in eastern China under the headline, "One County Provides Preview of China's Looming Aging Crisis." Anthony Kuhn's report focuses on the county's school and youth, as well as the proliferation of government-funded retirement homes, to make his point about the legacy of China's one-child policy. The county has been known for the quality of its schools, but now there is only one elementary school, in the town of Yangkou, and with 460 students, its enrollment is half of what it was a decade ago. Further, some of the students are struggling because of their home life situations. In particular, many parents are absent because they have migrated for jobs in cities, but they have left their children behind because they are not entitled to education or welfare benefits outside their rural home areas.
So they leave their children in the countryside in the care of their grandparents.

[The elementary school principal] says this causes developmental problems for some kids.

"The grandparents' love is a doting love," he says. "They don't know how to love them. They don't know what to give them or talk to them about."
And then there's the part about those at the other end of the life cycle, many living in state-sponsored retirement homes, where residents are "bundled up against the cold, as there's no heat in the winter here." Kuhn explains:
Most of them have no income or children to support them.

In recent years, this town went from having one such facility to having five. That doesn't include private retirement homes, where children pay to have their parents looked after.
As for the one-child policy that is one reason places like Rudong County are in this situation, Kuhn quotes a former local Communist Party secretary who helped enforce that nation's one-child policy back in the 1960s:
Having a second child wasn't allowed, so we had to work on them and persuade them to have an abortion. At the time, we village cadres' work revolved around women's big bellies.
A sociologist/demographer, Chen Youhua, who grew up in Rudong County and now teaches at Nanjing University projects that "in a 150-year period from 1950 to 2100, China's population will have gone from about 500 million to a peak of 1.4 billion and then decline more or less to where it started." He explains:
"Only yesterday, China was emphasizing the advantages of the one-child policy," he points out. "To encourage people the next day to have children is a 180-degree reversal."

For decades, he adds, Chinese have been taught that all of their problems — from poverty to chaos — boil down to having too many people. He says that idea is deeply ingrained and difficult to change.
Other posts about rural China are here, here and here.

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