China's elderly fare well in global report

China does well in new UN-funded study of older people's living conditions around the world, but some say findings are too rosy

PUBLISHED : Friday, 04 October, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 04 October, 2013, 4:08am

A study backed by the United Nations has placed China just outside the leading third of 91 nations on how well their elderly fare, although some Chinese academics argue the ranking is overly optimistic.

The report comes amid debate on the mainland over changes to the retirement age, a widening gap in its pension financing system, and a rapidly greying of the population.

In determining its ranking, the "Global Agewatch Index" looked at how the elderly fared in four general areas: income security, health status, education and social environment. Nordic nations, Germany and Canada dominated the top five, with China ranked 35th.

The report noted recent efforts to strengthen the basic security net. "Bold initiatives to extend social protection and healthcare insurance to urban and rural areas have significant potential to change the outlook for older Chinese people," said the report by HelpAge International, a non-governmental organisation.

But when the score was broken down, China slipped to the bottom third of nations in terms of income security, which included pension coverage and the poverty rate in old age.

"China has made significant progress in reducing overall income poverty, lifting nearly 700 million people above the poverty line between 1981 and 2010. However, rates of poverty among older people remain high in comparison with other age groups," said the report, which used data from the UN and other global agencies.

China ranked 51st when measured solely on health status, which took into account life expectancy at 60 and psychological well-being. Japan, which has the world's highest proportion of elderly people relative to population, ranked fifth in this area, and came in tenth overall.

A country's overall wealth was not a reliable indicator of how well it ranked. The BRICS nations - Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa - all scored lower than Uruguay (23) and Panama (30), for instance. Researchers said better-off older populations were most often the result of an early adoption of progressive social welfare policies.

One area in which China scored highly was in the social environment, which includes such factors as relationships, safety and access to transport.

Some Chinese researchers disagreed with the findings. "I am not confident that China deserves such a ranking," said Liang Zhongtang , a leading demographics and family planning expert at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences.

Liang acknowledged the expansion of the public health insurance scheme and a pilot pension programme among rural residents. But most elderly people living outside of cities were still dependent on their children to care for them, Liang said.

Yang Tuan , a professor with the Institute of Sociology at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said the government should strengthen home-based care. "The issue of maintaining the well-being of the elderly is not simply money but providing long-term care service and training people for such jobs. Expanding social welfare will not solve the problem and current policies are not addressing it," she said.