Greying parents left to beg as children cut ties
Shenzhen officials recently evicted dozens of elderly beggars from the two-floor tenement house they had rented for years in Lowu district's Huangbeiling area, one of the city's biggest slums.
Local aid organisations usually help aged vagrants contact their relatives and offer free train tickets home, but in this case the elderly beggars, mostly peasants from the hinterland, refused aid and opted to stay in the city.
Chang Jiazhen, an 83-year-old peasant from Anhui, said the community of beggars had depended on each other for so long they would starve if they went home.
'My daughter hasn't given me any money for many years, and she spends most of her money on her own family,' Ms Chang said. 'I'm so hurt by her attitude to her own parents. That's why I would rather live with the other old beggars here.'
Ms Chang is one of thousands of elderly peasants from around the country who have left home to beg or collect cans in the bigger cities after their children abandoned them. She said younger beggars took care of her.
'They cook for me and teach me how to beg and what to say to pedestrians. Some even found the tenement, which cost only 200 yuan a month. Dozens of us could all sleep there together after begging until midnight.
'To me, they are much more like my family than my only, unfilial daughter.'
A nationwide survey released this month by National People's Congress deputies found that about 30 per cent of elderly mainlanders lived by themselves without any financial support from their children.
It also found that 52 per cent said their children showed a callous disregard for their daily welfare.
'It's a danger sign that the ethic of filial piety is dying in rural areas,' said Zhai Yuhe , who co-ordinated the survey.
'If there's no support from children and no social welfare from local authorities, being a beggar in big cities may be the only choice for the elderly.'
By 2004, 90 million of the nation's more than 140 million elderly were living in rural areas, few with pensions or health coverage and most relying on the traditional form of old-age insurance - their children.
But that support network has come under increasing stress during two decades of economic modernisation.
Sun Yat-sen University sociologist Li Ruojian said the past 20 years had seen an exodus of young people from their villages in search of opportunities in the big cities. As a result, rural areas were greying faster than urban ones.
'Beyond migration, there is the challenge of shrinking family size,' he said. 'Today's rural elders, who started their families before the era of strict birth-control policies, typically have four or five children to share the burden of supporting them. But China's declining fertility rate will soon change this.'
He said China was losing many of the shared values, such as filial piety, it previously took for granted as 'individualistic western values' took hold.
'Many members of the younger generation from rural areas become unwilling to support their parents when they find themselves struggling in the cities.'
Ms Chang said her granddaughters, who worked in Shanghai, had visited her home only once and seldom sent money back.
'My daughter lives with her eldest son and her daughter-in-law doesn't treat her well,' she said. 'She has to struggle for a living herself, let alone to support me.'
Despite being disappointed by her own daughter, Ms Chang still hopes for family support in the future after adopting a baby boy abandoned by a young prostitute 22 years ago.
'No one can survive without children in the countryside,' she said. 'We fostered the boy and let him replace our daughter.'
They have depended on each other since 1998, when her husband died. In 2004, her adopted grandson passed his university entrance examination and went to Beijing to study, while Ms Chang headed to Shenzhen to beg in order to support them.
'Shenzhen is an appropriate place for old people,' she said. 'Beijing is too cold. My grandson borrowed 40,000 yuan for his tuition fees from the university and I raise 200 yuan a month for his living expenses.
'Every Sunday afternoon I stop begging and wait for his call at a pharmacy. He always cries during the phone call and says he will find a job and support me as soon as he graduates.
'I'm so happy and am counting the days. I will stop begging and live with him soon. My grandson is my hope for the future.'