Chinese Professor Mocked for Suggesting Elderly Sacrifice Even More

China’s age of retirement has long been a subject of controversy, as the country’s aging population and slowing economic growth have made caring for the elderly an increasingly daunting task. Recently, Yang Yansui, a professor at China’s prestigious Tsinghua University, floated an idea to address the issue. Her idea was widely shared on Sina Weibo, a Twitter-like microblogging platform popular in China, rising to become the number one most-discussed comment on the site. But it was with derision, not support, that many Weibo users retweeted and commented on the professor’s proposal.

What, exactly, was controversial enough to inspire such backlash? Professor Yang suggested, “Let them retire from manufacturers, undergo training, and then take part in social service. Men can be gardeners at retirement homes, and women can do laundry for the elderly; wouldn’t that be great?”

The age of retirement in China at present is fifty for women and sixty for men. At that age, Chinese may begin to collect a pension that is partly self-funded and partly taxpayer-funded. Professor Yang’s idea of creating a period of public service between retiring from the workforce and collecting retirement benefits was derided as insulting, ungrateful, and overly simplistic.

A video of Professor Yang’s proposal has been retweeted over 60,000 times and has drawn over 63,000 comments. The ratio of comments to retweets is especially high, perhaps indicating that the post’s content hit close to home for many. Some users were overcome with anger. One wrote, “I never curse, but I can’t take this anymore. You [expletive], why haven’t you gone to do laundry at a retirement home, [expletive]!”

Other users explained why the idea had met with such dissatisfaction. Weibo user @Silouaneh remarked: “There is such an overlarge labor force right now, if you made all those older people do that work, kids who had just graduated would be unemployed. You’d be forcing them to compete with their elders, and the elderly would be taking jobs from their kids and grandkids! We can’t have that!”

Resistance to any reform of China’s retirement policy has many roots. Some fear that keeping the elderly in the workforce would mean increased competition in its already-tight job market. Others feel it is unfair to ask China’s older citizens to sacrifice even more, given that the generation nearing retirement has lived through some of the most trying times in China’s history. Still more wonder why China’s amazing economic development has not translated to more equitable distribution of wealth among its citizens, in an ostensibly socialist country.

Anger associated with this issue is further compounded by the fact that government employees rely on an entirely separate system for their retirement benefits, and changes to the retirement age would not affect them. Just as many Weibo users snarkily remarked that Professor Yang would not be washing clothes at a retirement home, ordinary Chinese are resistant to policy changes that would call on the majority of workers to make sacrifices without asking government employees to do their part.

The proposal’s few supporters were easy targets, and became embroiled in arguments within arguments. Within the thread of comments on Yang’s proposal, two individuals squared off in a revealing online tiff:

@Dan1964Ben (@蛋1964笨): It’s very reasonable; today’s social security is funded with taxpayer money. If they can still work, why should they collect it without working? Can’t they lighten the load on those who are working now?

@LittleFriendWangHengheng (@王哼哼小朋友): I’d truly like to see what kind of things you think are reasonable once you’re old. At that age…how many 50-year periods do you have in your life?

@Dan1964Ben: You don’t really understand where today’s social security is coming from, do you? When you’ve got a minute find an expert to explain it to you, and you’ll realize it’s reasonable. We’re eating tomorrow’s food today, but what happens when tomorrow comes? How will we take care of the elderly then?

@LittleFriendWangHengheng: Then why did we pay those taxes? Why did we make those promises?

@Dan1964Ben: Isn’t it just a few more years? If we save, we can support this. You experience a little more hardship and then it’s over.

@LittleFriendWangHengheng: And just a few years more? And just a few more years after those years? If you can’t even keep even the most basic faith, why would I believe you when you say 65? Ha.

For millennia, Chinese tradition has dictated that children look after their parents and grandparents in their old age. This changed after the implementation of the so-called One-Child Policy decades ago. The large extended families that once comprised Chinese society have been replaced by small, top-heavy family units where a 4-2-1 structure of four grandparents, two parents, and just one child creates impossible burdens for the younger generation. Restrictions on reproductive rights were pushed with the promise that the government would care for Chinese in their old age.

Despite public resistance, a change to China’s retirement age has been under discussion for years due to economic pressure. China’s retirement age is low compared to many countries, and life expectancy has risen as the country has developed. Whether or not it makes economic sense to raise the retirement age, it is a highly emotional issue for many Chinese. Now too old to have more children, a generation of Chinese are waiting to see if the grand bargain—one they can no longer negotiate—will be changed without their consent.

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