Festival a cue to focus on ageing society
Today marks the Double Ninth Festival, an occasion for Chinese people all over the world to go hiking, appreciate chrysanthemums as a symbol of longevity and show respect for the elderly.
Looming large over the horizon is one of the most critical issues facing the mainland and requiring immediate, high-level attention from the central government - the ageing population.
The mainland is rapidly becoming an ageing society. That will no doubt have profound implications for its pattern of future economic growth as pressure mounts on the labour supply, medical care, pensions and social fabric. But, for the mainland's leadership, the window for tackling those challenges is closing fast.
Officials forecast the population of mainlanders aged 65 or above is rising by eight million annually. By 2047, the number of elderly is forecast to reach 320 million, up from 104 million in 2007 - in short, one mainlander in five will be 65 or older.
Mainland experts predict the window for cashing in on the demographic dividend - the rise in economic output as the percentage of working people increases while the birth rate falls faster than the ageing rate - is expected to close in 2033. This means the mainland has just 24 years left.
But Beijing is inadequately prepared in this area, to say the least. A Xinhua news item yesterday provided interesting context. It reported that Vice-Premier Hui Liangyu chaired a meeting in Beijing, on the eve of the festival, to launch a strategic study that will give the government scientific data on which to base effective policies dealing with the ageing population.
Xinhua quoted Hui as saying the elderly are 'the precious treasure' of the country and the Chinese Communist Party. The ageing issue, he noted, has important implications for the national economy, the people's livelihood, and the country's long-lasting peace and stability.
His remarks, certainly representing the views of the central government, should be welcomed. But the fact that such a strategic study was launched only yesterday - to gather data for formulating national policies - simply means the mainland has no coherent policies in this regard. Indeed, compared to Japan or Western countries that are adopting proactive policies to deal with ageing populations, the mainland's actions have been minimal.
The mainland's social fabric is changing rapidly, and the impact of the ageing population is already evident. As the generation from the one-child policy grows up and marries, it is faced with the harsh reality of supporting four parents at the same time.
And government help is negligible. Until recently, the government's policy for the care of the elderly was the one that has been in practice for thousands of years - that is, to have parents supported by their children. Only starting in 2000 have rich cities like Shanghai begun to provide local community services, such as house cleaning and caring to the elderly, particularly those unable to fend for themselves. For the moment, such services are provided only in the big cities.
Government-invested facilities for the elderly have also been very limited. According to state media reports, there are about 38,000 various elderly homes providing 1.2 million beds.
This means there are only 8.6 beds for every 1,000 elderly people, a pitiful figure compared to an average of 50 to 70 beds in Western countries.
According to the Ministry of Civil Affairs, the number of elderly people who have lost the capability to take care of themselves has risen to 9.4 million: 1.94 million in cities and 7.46 million in rural areas. Those who have partially lost that ability number around 18.94 million. Life is particularly harsh for the elderly in rural areas, where most don't have adequate pension or medical care coverage.
The mainland's leadership should waste no time in drafting long- and short-term policies to deal with the ageing issue.
For a start, it should draw the nation's attention to the issue by making the Double Ninth Festival a national holiday.
Second, the government should not only boost spending on the care of the elderly but also draft preferential policies to encourage private and foreign investment.
If the experiences of Western countries can be absorbed, the mainland's future market potential for businesses related to elderly care could run into the trillions of yuan and would help create tens of millions of new jobs each year.
It is not hard to imagine that this will become a serious engine for the mainland's economic growth in the not-too-distant future.