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In China, taking care of the parents is the law

BEIJING—In China, filial piety is the law of the land.

Since 1996, a law has been on the books requiring Chinese to provide for the care and well-being of their elderly parents, "comforting them and catering to their special needs."

Experts say the law is one of a kind in the world. The need to pass such legislation may have been a sign that filial piety is in peril in China. The elderly are feeling vulnerable, and some Chinese say the law needs more teeth.

"More and more young people are occupied with office and housework, and some do not want to care for their parents at all," the state Xinhua News Agency noted in a dispatch last fall.

Respect for one's family elders is ingrained in Chinese tradition. Confucius, the ancient Chinese philosopher, wrote: "While his parents are alive, the son may not go far away."

Today, 120 million to 140 million Chinese workers have left their family homes to seek factory work in distant provinces. They usually send money home each month.

"The trouble is, their incomes are not sufficient," said Wu Cangping, a senior demographer at the People's University of China in Beijing.

As China's elderly population burgeons, debate about how to care for seniors—and whether to enforce filial piety through the courts—has flourished.

The sweeping law, titled ``Protecting the Rights and Interests of the Elderly,'' says support for the aged "shall be provided for mainly by their families," shifting responsibility away from the state. The law also requires spouses to "assist in meeting the obligation" for their in-laws.

However, it doesn't spell out how much grown children must give their parents. A lawyer from Sichuan province, Li Zongfa, proposed a new law last year requiring offspring to "cover all their life expenses" at a level equivalent to a subsistence allowance for the urban poor.

The proposal has languished, partly because few think it could be enforced.

Existing legislation already allows the elderly to press their cases before a judge.

"The parents can sue their children," Wu said. "But it never happens. It usually is reconciled."

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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