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Aging need not be a threat to China's future

By Stuart Gietel-Basten | China Daily | Updated: 2020-11-14 09:09

Li Min/China Daily

Every time I give a lecture on aging in China, I use a screen-shot of a headline and photo from an article in Time magazine published in 2019. The headline is simple: "China's Aging Population Is a Major Threat to Its Future." The article describes the familiar narrative for the consequences of aging in China. The standard forecasts of the number of people aged 65 or above in the future are presented, and referred to as "dire news for the prospects of the world's second-largest economy".

Not only is this so-called "ticking demographic time bomb" presented as an economic threat in the article, but also as one which can challenge the very social fabric of society: The ratio of young to old will be dramatically unbalanced by the rising ranks of the elderly, putting unprecedented pressure on the ties that hold society together. Such views should be very familiar to readers of China Daily.

As far as aging is concerned, then, China certainly appears at a disadvantage compared to other countries in strict demographic terms. To a degree, it has "got old before it has gotten rich".

So what hope for China?

The good news is that China has a number of key advantages, which, if taken advantage of, could help weather the challenges of aging.

The Fifth Plenary Session of the 19th Communist Party of China Central Committee that concluded last month proposed a national strategy to deal with the aging population. Much of the focus in recent days has been on the possible lifting of the last family planning rules; but this will have very limited impact on the overall population profile of the country. Although a multipronged approach will be required to address the various aging-related challenges and, of course, we will have to wait to see the details of the plenum's plan, we can get some idea about what it would be from a 2019 State Council document that addresses the issue. The document says a comprehensive, multiagency strategy, which will address "institutional base, wealth reserve, manpower, science and technology backup, products and services, social environment, and socioeconomic development", will be required to deal with the challenges.

Elsewhere in the plenum plan, policies relating to income level, employment policy, education, social security and health are expected to complement the strategy to tackle aging, by not only helping shape a better life for individuals as they age, but also maximizing the chances of releasing the productivity potential of the huge pool of China's skilled workforce.

Unlike many other countries, the style of governance in China allows for strategic planning, which not only spans many years, but can also cut across various agencies. Plans such as "Healthy China 2030" and the poverty alleviation drive show that these wide-reaching, ambitious, multiagency plans not only have a history but appear to be operationally viable too. Which bodes well for the implementation of the strategy across the country.

Another advantage China has is that the institutional systems established to address the aging problem are relatively young, and therefore (potentially) more malleable to reform than those with a longer history. It may seem an almighty challenge to "develop" an urgently needed system of long-term care, for example. However, compared with the pension reform in Europe, or fixing of overburdened healthcare systems, it may well be easier to "start from scratch" and design a sustainable system which works for China. Indeed, a pilot scheme is already under way.

Finally, there are reasons to be hopeful because of the Chinese people. At the moment, the young generally feel obligated to care for the older members of their family. This is changing, of course, but still represents an opportunity for the State, community, family and individual to share the responsibilities of care. Chinese people, in general, have a high savings rate. They attach high value to education. And there is still much room for China to move up the value chain of innovation and maximize the potential of those traits and traditional qualities.

In recent decades, China has been "healthier" than its people's income level might suggest. As strategies continue to improve health (and tackle poverty) we should be hopeful about a better future for both individuals and the sustainability of health and social welfare systems.

Let's return to the Time headline. The photo accompanying it shows Li Anxiao, 85, and his wife relaxing with their friends in a resort's swimming pool in Hainan province. Now let's break this down. People in their 80s; swimming; with their friends; on a holiday; in a resort in Hainan.

In other words, the headline says "Aging Population Is a Major Threat to Its (China's) Future" while the picture shows happy, healthy elderly people taking exercise with their friends and, crucially, spending good money while they are doing it! Of course, this is not the general experience of aged people in China. But it does at least show us that aging will bring opportunities as well as challenges. With good policies, China has the potential to make the most of the opportunities and thus offset many of the challenges.

The author is professor of social science and public policy, and director of the Center for Aging Science, at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. The views don't necessarily represent those of China Daily.

If you have a specific expertise and would like to contribute to China Daily, please contact us at opinion@chinadaily.com.cn , and comment@chinadaily.com.cn



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