An amended law requiring adult children to visit their elderly parents "often" has highlighted the problem of the mainland's swelling ranks of "empty nest" families. Experts doubt the change in law will help.
The amendment, controversial when first proposed by the National Committee on Ageing at the beginning of 2011, was passed following reports that many elderly people were being neglected or abused by their children.
An 81-year-old woman in Tianjin told China Central Television that she wanted to die before last year's Chung Yeung festival - a day when Chinese traditionally pay their respects to their ancestors and the elderly - because her three daughters, who all live away from her, did not visit.
Another story that sparked widespread outrage featured a nonagenarian grandmother in Jiangsu's Guanyun county who had been left in a pigsty for two years by her five sons and three daughters. Hunan web portal voc.com.cn reported that story two weeks ago.
The revised China Elderly People's Interests Protection Law, passed by the National People's Congress Standing Committee on Friday, says family members should care for the emotional well-being of elderly people and not neglect them.
The amendment, which will come into effect in July, says those not living in the same house as elderly parents should visit them often or send greetings. It does not define what it means by "often".
It also says that employers should allow paid leave, so that people with jobs can return to their hometowns to visit parents.
Professor Wu Changzhen, a family law specialist at the Chinese University of Political Science and Law, said the clause encouraging visits to parents was only meant to remind children, caught up in their jobs and their own family's concerns, not to forget about their parents.
She said more and more of the nearly 200 million people aged over 60 on the mainland were being abandoned by their children.
Half of the elderly living in urban areas do not live with their children, xinhuanet.com reported. In rural areas, 38 per cent did not.
Jinling Evening News reported that a third of the elderly in Nanjing were depressed or at risk of depression as a result of being forgotten by their children.
Professor Zhang Xiaoyi , from Shanghai Jiao Tong University's school of international and public affairs, said visiting and caring for parents was a traditional obligation for children but that nowadays the elderly can only dream about being with their children.
"In old age, people become reliant on their children, just the way babies rely on their mothers," Zhang said. "But their children are unaware of these needs."
She said people's failure to visit elderly parents was often blamed on people being busy with their own jobs and taking care of their children, as well as living a long way away.
Wu said the new clause was really an attempt to change attitudes because it was not accompanied by any punitive sanctions.
"At present there are only a few cases of parents filing charges against their children for neglect or abuse," she said. "Parents can win only if their children's neglect or abuse has had repercussions, such as serious illness."
Zhang said that she had doubts about the effectiveness of the new measure and thought the situation would not improve.
"Before the market reforms kicked off in China three decades ago, people who were not filial to their parents were denounced by their neighbours and colleagues, but there is no such atmosphere in today's society with its degraded morals," she said.
More campaigns focusing on the emotional care of the elderly were necessary, she added.
On the mainland, government officials and the staff of public institutions and state-owned enterprises are entitled to take paid leave to visit parents, according to a regulation enacted in 1981. Unmarried people are given 20 days a year to visit their parents if they live in another city. But those who work for private or foreign-owned enterprises do not get such leave.
"Many people don't use their holiday entitlement for visiting relatives because they dare not apply for it, or their applications are rejected," Zhang said.