New wording in the law requiring people to visit or keep in touch with their elderly parents or risk being sued and facing penalties came into force Monday, as China faces increasing difficulty in caring for its aging population.
It remains to be seen how much the amended law changes the status quo, however. Elderly parents in China already have been suing their adult children for emotional support, and the new wording does not specify how often people must visit or clarify penalties for those who do not.
In the first ruling since the new wording, a court in the eastern Chinese city of Wuxi ordered a couple to visit the woman's mother or face possible fines — and even detention.
One of the drafters, Xiao Jinming, a law professor at Shandong University, said the new law was primarily aimed at raising awareness.
"It is mainly to stress the right of elderly people to ask for emotional support. ... We want to emphasize there is such a need," he said.
Cleaning lady Wang Yi, 57, who lives alone in Shanghai, said the new law is "better than nothing." Her two sons work several hundred kilometres (miles) away in southern Guangdong province and she sees them only at an annual family reunion.
"It is too little, for sure. I think twice a year would be good," she said. "We Chinese people raise children to take care of us when we are old."
Later Monday, the court in Wuxi ruled that a woman and her husband must visit her 77-year-old mother — who lives 40 kilometres (25 miles) away — at least once every two months in addition to mandatory holiday visits, or face possible fines and detention, according to the state-run People's Court Daily.
China's legislature amended the law in December following frequent reports of elderly parents neglected by their children. It says offspring of parents older than 60 should see that their daily, financial and spiritual needs are met.
Although respect for the elderly is deeply engrained in Chinese society, three decades of market reforms have accelerated the breakup of China's traditional extended family, and there are few affordable alternatives, such as retirement homes.
Xiao said even before the Law of Protection of Rights and Interests of the Aged was amended, there were several cases of elderly parents suing their children for emotional support. Court officials generally settle such cases by working out an arrangement for sons or daughters to agree to visit more frequently. Typically, no money is involved.
The number of people aged 60 and above in China is expected to jump from the current 185 million to 487 million, or 35 per cent of the population, by 2053, according to figures from the China National Committee On Aging. The expanding ratio is due both an increase in life expectancy — from 41 to 73 over five decades — and by family planning policies that limit most urban families to a single child.
Rapid aging poses serious threats to the country's social and economic stability, as the burden of supporting the growing number of elderly passes to a proportionately shrinking working population and the social safety net remains weak.
Zhang Ye, a 36-year-old university lecturer from eastern Jiangsu Province, said the amended law was "unreasonable" and put too much pressure on people who migrate away from home in search of work or independence.
"For young people who are abroad or work really far away from their parents, it is just too hard and too expensive to visit their parents," she said. "I often go to visit my parents and call them ... (but) if a young person doesn't want to, I doubt such a law will work."
Also on HuffPost