Will parents really want to take bad offspring to court?

A mainland law stating children must visit their mums and dad often will be hard to enforce

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 19 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 19 March, 2013, 3:43am

Where wealth accumulates and men decay - that was the lamentation of an English poet in 1770 during the Industrial Revolution. Look at the filial piety legislation in China and one may see a hint of truth in it.

The Chinese have historically been a people steeped in filial piety, with the classic stories of Twenty Four Filial Exemplars being passed down through generations.

But as rapid economic growth turned China into an increasingly affluent society and a superpower-in-waiting, its families have witnessed fraying bonds, sometimes to the extent that parents face their children in court.

After a string of widely publicised cases in which abandoned elderly parents were left to fend for themselves, or die at home unnoticed, the Chinese legislature in December made amendments to the 1996 Protection of the Rights and Interests of the Elderly Law, which take effect from July 1.

The current 50-article legislation already made for impressive reading. Elderly people are given legal protection in virtually every aspect of life, from entitlement to basic provisions and family maintenance, to freedom from discrimination and to marry without interference from their children.

The new amendments, 85 articles in all, feature a duty that may raise some eyebrows: those who live away from home should visit their elders often.

There is even one for their bosses: "Employers should guarantee the right to home leave in accordance with relevant regulations."

How this law will be enforced remains unclear.

For many migrant workers who frequently complain of exploitation and poor working conditions, how "often" they can afford to make the long trip back is anyone's guess.

On the other hand, it may inspire an emboldened workforce who would assert their rights and fight unjust treatment.

Still, the law poses more questions than it gives solutions. China, like many developed economies, is grappling with an ageing society and ever-rising life expectancy.

And after three decades of its one-child policy, there is inevitably a shrinking pool of young blood available to fulfil filial duties.

So we will see a "sandwich" generation where the middle-aged couple faces the challenge of providing not only for their adolescent children but also for their elderly parents, leaving little room to save for retirement.

What makes this group particularly vulnerable is if their only child dies or is unable to support them, leaving them at the mercy of the state in their twilight years.

What is more, enforcement is a big issue. Will parents want to drag their children to court?

The adversarial nature of the legal process does not help mend family relationships, if the ultimate goal is to promote the virtue of filial piety.

Dr Karen Lee is an assistant professor with the Department of Law and Business at Shue Yan University