Authorities in northwestern China have a warning to residents: Take care of your parents or face punishment.
In a sharply worded notice Wednesday, Xunyang County police in Shaanxi province said that law enforcement officials, along with the local courts and prosecutors, will punish any “disobedient and unfilial behaviors.” The move, according to the notice, is aimed at “promoting traditional Chinese virtues and safeguarding the rights of the elderly.”
The notice lists six behaviors that authorities have deemed unfilial toward parents: living in new residences while parents live in “old and dangerous” ones, extorting parents’ pensions and other subsidies related to old age, shirking caretaking responsibilities, neglect, verbal abuse, and physical abuse. Possible punishments range from a verbal warning to police detention or even formal charges, depending on the severity of the offense.
China’s rapidly aging population, shrinking workforce, and traditional emphasis on filial piety are putting significant pressure on young people in the country. The government’s one-child policy — a rule in place from 1979–2015 that restricted birth numbers — has added to this strain. A typical Chinese couple nowadays can expect to care for four seniors as well as their own children — a phenomenon commonly referred to as the 4-2-1 problem.
In 2013, China added a new clause to its elderly protection law requiring adult children living apart from their parents to visit them regularly. Local governments have also introduced like-minded policies that give extra paid leave to employees to take care of ailing parents and encouraged parents to live with their children.
But Wu Youshui, a Zhejiang-based lawyer, told Sixth Tone that such notions of filial piety are remnants of China’s feudal society, adding that “disobedient and unfilial behaviors” should be regarded as moral concepts rather than legal ones. He said violations of seniors’ rights should be either settled through mediation or prosecuted in civil lawsuits.
“I don’t think the government should enforce them with criminal law,” Wu told Sixth Tone, referring to filial acts. He said unfilial behaviors “should be treated as criminal offenses only when people severely harm the elderly or commit crimes.”
In Wednesday’s notice, authorities said any individuals found disobeying the listed rules will be prosecuted according to provisions within the elderly protection rights and marriage laws, both of which aim to safeguard the country’s seniors. Elderly people who lack the means to take their children to court can seek assistance from judicial authorities and village committees.
Last year, a court in the southwestern Sichuan province issued varying sentences to five siblings for abandoning their 80-year-old father. Under Chinese law, failing to take care of aging parents or young children constitutes a criminal offense punishable by up to five years’ imprisonment or criminal detention.
“Taking care of elderly citizens is the government’s responsibility,” Wu, the lawyer, told Sixth Tone. “Using legal measures to force the younger generation into filial piety and branding it as disobedience is not in accordance with the rule of law.”
Editor: Bibek Bhandari.
(Header image: Two elderly people rest at a residential area for seniors in Nanjing, Jiangsu province, April 21, 2015. An Xin/VCG)