Saturday, January 21, 2012

New year dilemma for China's only-child generation

BEIJING: For one particular group of Chinese - young urban married couples who grew up as only children - the yearly ritual of going home for Chinese New Year can also mean tough decisions and sometimes-painful arguments.

These young couples are part of the generation of only children born during the 34 years of China's 'one-child policy'. Following the typical pattern, they migrated to the larger cities from the outlying provinces to go to university. They stayed for work, then got married.

And now they must decide which set of parents to go visit. It's a decision fraught with emotion.

'Both of us want to go back to our home to celebrate Chinese New Year,' said Ms Lin Youlan, 30, a government worker who married her husband, Mr Li Haibin, 33, four years ago. 'We always fight about this problem.'

She is from Chongqing in south-west China, and he is from Shangdong, on China's east coast. They live in Beijing, and they are both only children.

Mr Li said as the only son, he is under intense family pressure to visit his parents, who are not in good health.

'In Shandong province, men must celebrate the Spring Festival with their own families. And the wives should spend Chinese New Year at their husbands' homes,' he said. 'I worry how others will look at my parents if I don't go back home every year.'

In ancient times, Chinese New Year's Eve and the first day of the New Year - which this year fall on Jan 22 and Jan 23 - were spent at the home of the husband's parents, and the second day was spent with the parents of the wife. But that was in a time when couples largely married from the same village or town, or a relatively short distance away.

Now China's 1.3 billion people are mobile and rapidly urbanising. The government announced on Tuesday that the country's urban population had surpassed those living in rural areas, compared with just a quarter of the population living in cities in 1990.

That shift, coupled with the one-child policy and other societal changes, has left tens of millions of elderly people living alone, often with little in the way of government aid. China also has few nursing homes, and no tradition of professional caretakers to look after the elderly when they become infirm.

China now has 178 million people over the age of 60, according to government census figures. Mr Li Liguo, the minister of social affairs, said that number will jump to 216 million, or 16.7 per cent of the population, by 2015. At that time, Mr Li said, there will be 51 million 'empty nester' old people over 65 and living alone.

But while the older population is growing, China's current birthrate of about 1.54 children per woman is considered far below the normal replacement rate, which is two children per woman. (The rate in the United States, by comparison, is 2.06).

The problem comes vividly into focus now, with the annual Chinese New Year trek home - a time of year when, psychologists say, many 'empty nest' parents grow lonely and depressed.