In China, adults must visit their aging parents… or else

In the world's most populous country, it is now illegal to "neglect or snub elderly people"

Respect your elders with a visit or risk getting sued.
(Image credit: AP Photo/Andy Wong)

Unlike in Boca Raton, elderly people in China now have a legal basis for forcing their children to visit them. Adult children who don't comply could suffer fines or jail time (along with the usual guilt trip).

The "Elderly Rights Law" states that adult children "should never neglect or snub elderly people" and should visit their parents "often," even if they live far away.

Many Chinese citizens are griping about the vaguely worded law, wondering what visiting "often" means and how exactly it will be enforced. Zhang Yan Feng, a lawyer with a Beijing law firm, told the BBC that the law could actually have some teeth:

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It's hard to put this law into practice, but not impossible. If a case is brought to court on the basis of this law, I think it'll probably end up in a peaceful settlement. But if no settlement is reached, technically speaking, court rulings can force the person to visit home certain times a month. [BBC]

The increased urbanization of China has left millions of workers crammed in industrial cities like Shenzhen and Chengdu — far away from the rural homes where many of their parents still live (as documented in the movie Last Train Home).

The fragmentation of Chinese families comes at a time when millions of adults are becoming senior citizens. There are 185 million people aged 60 and over in China. By 2053, that number is expected to jump to 487 million — 35 percent of the population.

China's rapidly aging population will test its social safety net, especially considering the country's one-child policy. As the country gets older, the media has increasingly been filled with stories about adult children abusing their elders, including one involving a son forcing his 100-year-old mother to sleep in a pig sty.

While young people might complain on social media, some of China's senior citizens support the law.

"I think twice a year would be good," Wang Yi, whose two sons visit her once a year from hundreds of miles away, told the BBC. "We Chinese people raise children to take care of us when we are old."

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Keith Wagstaff is a staff writer at covering politics and current events. He has previously written for such publications as TIME, Details, VICE, and the Village Voice.