China’s New Family

China's New Family 02“To be thirty and unmarried is unlawful!” reads this past weekend’s hottest hash tag on Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

The hitherto unhitched, wondering about the accuracy of this pronouncement, may breathe a sigh of relief: “being single after your twenties is not a crime in China—at least not yet.”

Instead, the hash tag comes from a suggestion made by a white-haired grandfather who, during a street-side interview, had been bemoaning something that actually is a new Chinese law, one that mandates family members to “frequently visit or send greetings to elderly persons.” “Che dan!” (“It’s bullshit!”) the elderly man spat, before laying out his idea of who the real criminals are: “Those [unwed] people are the ones who should be punished!”

China's New Family 01

What deserves the letter of the law in a country as vast and protean as China? In recent years, Chinese intellectuals, along with a rising tide of educated professionals, have pressed the Communist Party for the rule of law to replace the rule of apparatchik whims.

Xi Jinping, the new President, and his administration have promised greater deference to constitutionalism, though the exact meaning of that has been as gauzy as the China Dream Xi likes to talk about.

As the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution have made evident, the Communist regime is spectacularly fallible, capable of making the sort of errors for which generations of Chinese continue to pay.

And it also has a habit of micromanaging the most private aspects of its citizens’ lives, such as their permitted place of residence, their employment, and the number of children they may have.

China's New Family 05

Besides the horrific phenomenon of female infanticide, the one-child policy may have had serious psychological repercussions for the only children it produced—including the tendency to be less trusting and conscientious, according to one prominent study—which have only recently begun to come to light.

That these “little emperors” might be self-centered and negligent when it comes to caring for their former guardians might not be surprising to the parents who once indulged the most junior member of their regulated nuclear family.

Whether it’s the psychological effects, or simply that it has created a generation below replacement population, the one-child policy is likely not the only contributor to the perceived problem of elder neglect in China.

There is also the fierce sense of social competition created by the reforms of Deng Xiaoping, which encouraged people to pursue opportunities even when they might mean moving whole provinces—hundreds of miles—away from their families; the growing logic of individualism, sparked by capitalist reforms; and the swelling population of elderly for whom there exists no social safety net.

China's New Family 03

The state, which Mao once deemed guardian to the people, created the problem; now, like the deadbeat parent who faults the deadbeat child without ever thinking of the behavior she had modeled, it is swooping in to meddle and mete out punishment once again.

China's New Family 04

The so-called “elderly rights law” is not the first piece of Chinese legislation whose transparent desperation and patent absurdity have provoked public outcry. Nor will it be the last, at least not so long as the government insists upon decrees that assign to individuals the blame for what political institutions have done, and the responsibility for fixing it as well.


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