World Agenda

Last updated: 14 september, 2010 - 10:25 GMT

Affording Old Age: China

Chinese senior citizens dancing in a Shanghai park

Chinese senior citizens dancing in a Shanghai park

Reporter Martin Patience describes his assignment in Shanghai, looking at how an ageing Chinese population is caring for its pensioners, as part of BBC World Service’s Affording Old Age coverage.

The first thing that strikes you about Shanghai is its skyline – it dazzles and glimmers. This is China’s boom city, this is where you come if you want to taste success.

But the city’s facade masks what is one of China’s most pressing problems: how to care for its rapidly ageing population. And it’s in Shanghai – a conurbation of capitalism – where the problem is most acute.

One in five of the city’s residents are of retirement age and the measures that are taken here to deal with the problem will be closely watched by the rest of China, indeed the world.

The Chinese can be suspicious of journalists – particularly foreign journalists – which makes talking to people very difficult.

BBC reporter Martin Patience

These stories are always difficult to report – turning what is a complex (some would say dull) issue into engaging storytelling.

Although we were only in the city for two days, we travelled to parts that most tourists never see.

Steps to health

On our first night, we gathered material at a small square near our hotel. Around a hundred Chinese had turned up to dance, they were mostly elderly. A stereo system blasted out waltzes and the odd pop song as the pensioners gently swayed around the square with skyscrapers looming in the background.

The Chinese can be suspicious of journalists – particularly foreign journalists – which makes talking to people very difficult. But on this occasion it proved very easy.

With the local Shanghai producer Ke Cai, I approached one man, dressed in black, who looked like he took his dancing seriously. He was more than happy to talk to me.

“Old people are always afraid of dying,” he said, “and that is why they dance, to stay healthy.”

And then a 65-year-old standing close by agreed, saying that dancing was good for your health as he stubbed out a cigarette with his shoe. When I pulled him up on it, he just chuckled at the irony.

Enormous strain

The Cherish-Yearn retirement home in Shanghai, China

The Cherish-Yearn retirement home in Shanghai, China

Our second day of reporting started extremely early and ended extremely late. One of our many stops was at one of the city’s retirement homes.

While common in many parts of the world, retirement homes or communities have just opened their doors in China in recent years.

Traditionally, this is a country where the young take care of the old, where they look after them until the day they die. But because of the state’s one-child policy and now increased life expectancy, the country’s population is rapidly ageing.

As a consequence there are now fewer young people to look after the elderly. It’s putting an enormous strain on the younger generation. But, for the wealthy elite, retirement homes are being seen as an option.

We met the manager and watched the corporate video. It was voiced by a Chinese actor with a booming voice and there followed sequences with elderly people roaming around happy and carefree.

We then saw the facilities, which were luxurious. The complex boasted a swimming pool, huge gym, selection of classes and a tranquil setting with the home set around a series of ponds.

Bearing the burden

The Yunying family, with daughter Yan pictured left

The Yunying family, with daughter Yan pictured left

Perhaps the best part of the trip was visiting a Chinese family in a modest apartment on the outskirts of the city.

Yan Yunying, 22, worked in the finance department of a company. She also cared for her grandparents and helped her father look after her mother, who is ill with cancer.

Miss Yunying told me that it was tough to live her own life while supporting her entire family, but she bore her burden bravely, insisting that it was her duty.

During the interview, she made tea, surrounded by her father and grandparents.

Miss Yunying’s mother was sleeping in the bedroom next door – weak from her radiation treatment, but as we were leaving, her mother appeared. She had wanted to say goodbye.

Read Martin's news feature on China's pension crisis click here

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