Kleenex in hand, the retired farmer in the purple plaid shirt
perched behind the plaintiff's table in a rural courtroom and wept
as she complained to the judge about her eldest son.
For the last year and a half, 78-year-old Li Lanyu said, she's
been asking him to visit and provide her with grain and cooking
oil. "The son has forgotten the mother!" she shouted, burying her
face in her hands.
Her son wasn't there to defend himself. Although he tends a plot
of land, he leaves for weeks at a time to toil as a construction
worker hundreds of miles away. His wife and daughter told the judge
he earns just $166 a month. Visiting more often was possible, the
daughter said, but they could afford only a fraction of the food
the grandmother wanted.
Until recently, Li Wanglun, 60, may have been a disappointment,
even an embarrassment, to his mother in a country where the 2,500-
year-old Confucian ideal of filial piety still runs deep. Now,
though, he may also be a lawbreaker: A new national statute took
effect July 1 mandating that family members attend to the spiritual
needs of the elderly and visit them "often" if they live apart.
The "visit your parents" measure is just one component of a
multipronged effort by the government and other organizations to
remind people to take an active role in their parents' lives.
Across China, the "visit your parents" measure has inspired
applause, derision and a bit of soul-searching: Are the nation's
traditional values and time-honored family customs slipping away so
fast, many ask, that they must be encoded in law?
Some younger people believe the government's campaign is not all
altruistic but instead reflects concern about the demands that a
swelling population of seniors and a shrinking group of workers
will put on state finances. Authorities, they say, want individuals
to bear a significant share of the cost of elder care.
There was no immediate ruling in Li's lawsuit, which was heard in
July and widely reported in the Chinese media. It was the first
such case to come before a court in Sichuan province. Cases also
have been brought in Henan and Jiangsu provinces. In the latter, a
judge ordered a woman to visit her 77-year-old mother every two
months and on major holidays.
In a nation with a rapidly aging population and families
fragmented by migration and the harried demands of modern life,
these cases are unlikely to be the last.
Some seniors say an increasingly self-involved younger generation
of workaholics needs a stern reminder of its moral obligations.
"This is a good law. Children should never forget their parents,
no matter how busy they are," said an 88-year-old retired factory
worker, surnamed Mu, who was taking his daily 6 a.m. constitutional
in Beijing's Ritan Park.
"I live with my oldest son, but I have a friend whose kids come
back only once a year to visit."
But 72-year-old Zhang Boxi, who was doing stretching exercises
nearby with his wife, Cheng Zunying, 70, said the law, which is
vague and doesn't specify punishments, would be hard to implement.
"How often is 'often'? Every five days? Every 10 days?" he asked.
"What if the boss won't let you take time to go? It's not right to
use the law to dictate emotional relations between parents and
children, or husbands and wives."
Cheng concurred. "If our two sons stopped visiting us, would we
sue them? That's impossible," she said, laughing. "Totally
Nearly 15 percent of the country's population - more than 200
million people - is now 60 or older, according to the China
Research Center on Aging. …