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China is on a long, steady march to becoming an aged society

BEIJING—A recent wintry day found hundreds of retirees at one of Beijing's principal parks. Some sang Chinese folksongs in impromptu choruses. Others kicked a little foot shuttlecock back and forth. One large group practiced outdoor ballroom dancing.

If the parks and plazas of major cities such as Beijing and Shanghai seem to contain more elderly people than youngsters these days, it's because city populations are aging. China's two largest cities have crossed a threshold: Both have more retirees 60 and older than children under age 15.

The trend is only beginning. China soon will face a rapid increase in its elderly population. Experts describe the forecasts as staggering. China now has 134 million people 60 and older. By 2020, projections foresee 240 million. By the middle of the century, China will cap out at 400 million to 450 million people 60 and older.

The elderly boom will bring political and economic stresses. Already, vast changes in social patterns are hitting the elderly as tens of millions of migrant workers abandon rural areas to find jobs in cities, leaving children in the hands of grandparents. Some elderly, with no pensions, face uncertain futures. Others are demanding that authorities enforce laws requiring grown children to provide for them.

China's social-security umbrella is small. At least three out of four Chinese workers don't have pension plans. That means that more than 70 percent of seniors are financially supported and tended to by family members.

China has some time before a big demographic leap in the numbers of elderly in the next decade, but experts already are alarmed at the looming pressures.

"We only have 15 years ahead of us to prepare," said Du Peng, the director of the Institute of Gerontology at the People's University of China. "For a social-security system, you need 20 years to maturity so you can contribute, then begin to withdraw money. We don't have a lot of time."

A series of factors have combined to speed China's transition toward an aged society. When Mao Zedong and his communist forces took over China in 1949, the nation held 450 million people. Average life expectancy was barely 41 years.

For nearly three decades, Mao encouraged population growth, seeing it as an asset to development. In the late 1970s, amid a runaway population boom, Mao slapped on a "one-child" policy to limit the offspring of couples. Since then, the policy has halted an estimated 300 million births, the state says, leaving China's population at 1.3 billion today.

Meanwhile, Chinese life expectancy has risen to 70 years. In major cities, it's even higher; Beijing residents' life expectancy is 79.6 years.

Those Chinese who were born during the population boom are now nearing or entering retirement, and they may face acute challenges, especially in rural areas.

Demographers refer to it as the 4-2-1 problem. In some families, one child faces the burden of ensuring the well-being of two parents and four grandparents. The problem is expected to grow much more acute in the coming decades.

China asks men to retire at 60 and women at 55, or even at 50. Officials are reluctant to raise the retirement age. In one of the seeming contradictions of China's economy, officials need to shove older people out of work to make room for a stream of young job seekers.

"In the case of China, it is not so easy. We have a huge number of youngsters," said Wu Cangping, a demographer at the People's University.

In rural areas, few old people receive pensions or are able to retire. It's common in rural China to see elderly people tilling fields.

"People in their 60s and 70s must come back and work the land. It is quite a heavy burden for them," said Du, the academic.

Even in cities, older people are hesitant to lean on children for money and care, given the massive changes roiling society and the workplace.

"It's very competitive now," said Liu Runmao, a 71-year-old retired factory worker. Sons and daughters "don't have the time or energy to take care of their parents."

While about 30 percent of urban elderly live alone today, experts say the number will rise steadily into the next decade and beyond.

Still, in many ways urban Chinese grow old in a milieu that would seem striking to most Americans. Less than 1 percent of those over 80 are in institutions. Cultural values encourage older people to help one another and to exercise daily. Indeed, officials in many cities have set up outdoor exercise stations geared toward the elderly.

Confucian tradition encourages deference and attention to elders.

"Every day, from 8 o'clock to 4:30 in the afternoon, I spend time with my mother-in-law washing her clothes and cooking for her," said Yang Fang, the 28-year-old mother of a 3 {-year-old boy.

Longevity is highly esteemed in China. And the forecasts indicate that the number of octogenarians is going to rise sharply. The number of people 80 and over will climb from 8 million today to about 50 million by the year 2040, according to the U.N. Development Program.

"By 2050, there will be 98 million people aged 80 and over in China, more than there are in the entire world today," noted a 2004 report, "The Graying of the Middle Kingdom," put out by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a research center in Washington.

It doesn't stop there. China has 17,800 centenarians now and will have a quarter of a million people 100 or older by 2030, Du said.


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

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ARCHIVE GRAPHIC on KRT Direct (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20010301 Old populations

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