Wednesday, Aug 23, 2017, 6:41 AM CST – China

Society

Filial Piety Law

Who Cares?

A new law decrees that all Chinese citizens are now obliged to visit their parents regularly. Is forcing filial piety on the public the best way to stamp out neglect?

Photo by CFP

A presenter on a popular Beijing TV gourmet program wasted no time in jeering at China’s newest law for commercial gain. “Hey, you’re breaking the law if you don’t visit your parents often enough. So why not enjoy a dinner with them at one of the wonderful restaurants we recommend?”

Taobao, China’s wildly popular eBay equivalent, soon followed suit. “Honey, it’s your legal responsibility to visit your parents or contact them. Too busy? We can do that for you,” ran one ad for “filial child surrogates.”

While locals may be turning a blind eye to such advertising gimmicks, they may struggle to sidestep the law. On July 1, the revised law on protecting the rights and interests of the elderly took effect. Adult children living apart from their retired parents are required by law to visit or greet their parents “often.”

On the same day, in Wuxi, Jiangsu Province, a court ordered a middle-aged couple to visit the wife’s mother once every two months, plus an annual minimum of three visits on public holidays. If they failed to comply with the ruling, the couple were told, they would be fined or detained. Several similar verdicts have been issued by courts around China, which has the country’s legion of overstretched single children worried.

While few parents would be likely to take their child to court, this new law is a somewhat unusual attempt to redress a growing social problem – namely, the neglect of vulnerable, elderly people by their families. As China’s social safety net is at its thinnest after retirement, the government hopes to further defer responsibility for its oldest citizens to their families, a state of affairs which, in traditional Confucian culture, makes perfect sense.

Filial Duty

Filial piety is one of the cardinal Confucian virtues, and for millennia the elderly have been afforded a huge level of respect and veneration in Chinese society. Confucius himself urged people to “never travel afar when your parents are alive,” a proclamation which jarred somewhat with the Great Sage’s own well-documented wanderlust.

With the advent of Communism, however, family ties were given secondary importance to class consciousness, and it was routine for children to denounce their parents and other relatives as counterrevolutionaries during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). Since Reform and Opening-up began in the 1980s, rather than staying home to care for one’s parents, children were exhorted to find lucrative work to support their families financially, leading many to abandon their ancestral villages for the booming cities, leaving entire households behind in the process.

Despite this, a strong philosophical bent has endured in Chinese culture which automatically affords respect and veneration to one’s elders.

Professor Xiao Jinming from Shandong University, one of the drafters of the law, explained to our reporter that “legislators believe that moral obligations should receive strong enough legal emphasis to help preserve the tradition of filial piety in Chinese society, which is being eroded by the unprecedented economic and cultural transformation taking place today.”

This is why a widely-broadcast pop song called Go Home and See Your Parents Often, released in 1999, has been so popular that even the newly-revised filial piety law has been named after it.

Pressure

A combination of an improved standard of living and the One Child Policy has meant that one out of every six Chinese citizens are over the age of 60, nearly half of these living alone according to a survey released in July by the Office of the China National Committee on Aging.

Many elderly people, cut off from their families, succumb to mental and emotional distress, according to Gao Xin, a judge in Wuxi who has more than 10 years of experience in dealing with domestic disputes between seniors and their children. He told our reporter that aged parents often lose contact with their children following domestic disputes. He believes this new law means that these parents can forcibly reestablish contact with their offspring.

The new law has divided the public, with many criticizing the judiciary’s attempt to interfere in what many acknowledge is a moral and ethical issue. Predictably, the older generation are reported to be broadly supportive of the legislation, while young people tend to oppose it.

Mrs Liu, a 47 year-old staff member in a supermarket in Beijing, agrees that society’s morals are loosening, and approves of punishment for those who neglect their parents. However, she is unconvinced by the vague wording of the law.

“How ‘often’ should visits or contact be made?” she asked our reporter. “What if those [children] spend just one minute complaining to their parents when they are forced to visit or call?”

Others simply dismiss the law as a triviality which distracts the public from far more worrisome problems. Mr Li, a senior mechanical engineer in his late 50s, told our reporter he was “disappointed by the use of legal resources on such things, which are much less serious than food safety.”

Gao, the judge, told our reporter that most adults who have mistreated their parents are aware of their actions, but simply do not care because nothing could be done with them. He claims that many changed their attitudes after being told possible legal consequences. This has led him to support the law as effective.

“The wellbeing of your parents is part of your own interest, not something to be compromised for the sake of your interest,” Gao told our reporter.

Indeed, judges have been offered considerable discretionary powers when it comes to the application of the new filial piety law, determining the necessary frequency and form of contact between parents and offspring. In practice, they need to take into consideration the relative distance between the two parties and their personalities.

“Even in the worst case scenario in which the ruling is not implemented, the elderly feel more relieved than otherwise, because finally justice is done and their dignity is safeguarded by this last resort – the law,” said Li Dongfang, head of a Shanghai law firm which has provided free legal consultancy for elderly people for a decade.

Forced to be Filial

Many people complain that they do not neglect their parents out of choice, but merely out of necessity. A report by UBS revealed that it took a worker in Beijing 36 minutes to earn the money for a Big Mac in 2012, compared with the 28-minute global average. This index does not take into account the quantities of overtime most Chinese employees are compelled to take on, whether to fulfill quotas, secure contracts or cultivate relationships with business associates – a practice almost as old in China as that of caring for one’s parents.

This is why many have decried the law as an attempt to shift blame for the state of China’s senior care infrastructure directly onto private citizens. While insisting that happiness in family life can only be provided by family members themselves, Professor Xiao also stressed that public policies are necessary if laws such as the filial piety law are to be effective. A better social security net, for example, could reduce a family’s financial burden and make it possible for adult kids to pay more attention to their parents.

There are some nods to such policies within the text of the law, which also requires that employers guarantee vacation time for employees wishing to visit their parents – but with the caveat that such vacations be guaranteed “according to relevant rules.”

This has reminded China of a decades-old but effectively dormant home-leave rule which gives paid days off to public employees to visit parents or spouses living in other cities. There are calls to revive this rule and extend it to the private sector. Since 2008, all employees in private or public entities are entitled under the labor law to annual paid leave, however, few make use of their entitlement outside of national holidays as they are concerned that taking additional vacations will threaten their career prospects.

Xiao disclosed that a policy was being worked out to give financial aid to people to purchase property in their home towns in order to live close to their parents. However, even with subsidies in place, few city workers would willingly return to low-paid, dead-end jobs in their home towns simply in exchange for cheaper housing. “If the income gaps weren’t so vast, who would leave their home towns?” remarked Mr Peng, an Anhui native who runs a newsstand in Beijing.

Until the imbalance between where most Chinese people have come from and where they are now is redressed, the government may be able to force people to visit their parents more often, but it is beyond even the power of a court order to force families to be happy.

A popular post currently circulating on the Internet lists 10 icy exchanges described as “things that hurt parents the most.”

One of them is: “What’s up, mom? Nothing? Then I’m hanging up.” 

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