Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

When Filial Piety Is the Law

Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

When Filial Piety Is the Law

Article excerpt

Having once suppressed the idea of devotion to elderly parents, the Chinese Communist Party now orders it.

China's revised law on the Protection of the Rights and Interests of Elderly People took effect last Monday. A clause now stipulates: "Family members living apart from the elderly should frequently visit or send greetings to the elderly persons."

"I am breaking the law," some people suddenly realized.

The new law has been controversial. The official media have sung a chorus of praise, as though China has suddenly found a solution to a moral plague. But skepticism abounds among Internet commentators and the public.

Some protest that their employers insist that they work overtime, even on holidays, giving them no chance to go home to see their parents. Even more people complain that they can't afford to make frequent home visits, and have no choice but to wait until they have a long vacation. And there are pointed comments to the effect that, for decades now, the official media have been extolling those exemplary workers who stay at their posts during the Spring Festival. With the implementation of the new law, they ask sarcastically, are these model workers going to end up in jail? It's just a joke, of course, since "should" carries no punitive connotations.

I'm reminded of a true story I came across some years ago. A farmer from a poor area scrimped and saved to get his son through college. When his son got a job he got a new telephone number, and his father could not contact him. The father began to worry, walking 10 miles into town every week to call a number that was no longer in use. It never occurred to him that his son had abandoned him. He became more and more anxious, finally turning to the media for help. In the end he found his son, but the young man was infuriated at the loss of face he had suffered. The heartbroken old man had to return alone to his threadbare home.

In recent years, reports of children abandoning or mistreating their parents have filled our TV screens, newspapers and Web sites. Many people lament bitterly the collapse of moral standards in China, seeing this new preoccupation with material advantage as the downside of our rapid economic growth during the last 30-odd years. "If you have money, you can make the devil turn the millstone," the saying goes, but these days it's more like money making the millstone turn the devil.

At the same time, hundreds of millions of farmers have been leaving their fields to work in the cities, and a substantial part of the urban population has become mobile, too, leading to the demise of the traditional adage that "when one's parents are living, one does not travel far. …

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