A Chinese virtue is now the law – NYT

New York Times today: A Chinese Virtue Is Now the Law.

The government enacted a law on Monday aimed at compelling adult children to visit their aging parents. The law, called “Protection of the Rights and Interests of Elderly People,” has nine clauses that lay out the duties of children and their obligation to tend to the “spiritual needs of the elderly.”

This is interesting. I would understand how a person from a Western culture might not understand the need for this, but I see where the Chinese government is coming from.

Most would agree that elderly people are one of the most vulnerable and excluded groups in society. This particular law, though I haven’t read it in full, aims to fulfil the “spiritual needs” of elders as opposed to needs fulfilled by social welfare (food, shelter, etc.).

It seems strange that a government, even if it’s China’s, would require adult children to visit their parents. With other social policies, say, the One Child Policy (without going into the controversy) was enacted to combat rapid overpopulation and general economic strain. What would the Chinese government achieve with this particular law?

First, I feel that this is more of a strong statement of social policy than actual, enforceable law, as there is no actual punishment involved. It places elderly people in a position where they are protected even more by the state, as it is now essentially dictating how other members of society – the children of the elderly – should behave. It is a recognition that this particular demographic requires such protection.

To be sure, this isn’t protection in the everyday sense, like protection from poverty. Rather, it is an attempt to ensure the elderly the decency and dignity they, from the perspective of their government, deserve.

Similarly, this law is an attempt to preserve the basic unit of society: the family. It requires that a child’s relationship is maintained with his or her parents even into their adult years. The law is quite conservative in this manner, despite its encroachment into an area of family life that is sensitive and private.

In the same way parents should not neglect or ignore the needs of their young children, adult children should not disregard their ageing parents. As children are a vulnerable group of society that requires extra protection from their family, the elderly should also be protected not simply by the invisible hand of the government handing out food coupons, but also by their own children who they have raised. As China becomes more modernised and individualistic, the government probably wants to prevent this obligation from disintegrating.

Each society should be allowed to determine for itself what obligations its members have to each other. These obligations are then codified in law, which promotes social justice, or equality between social classes. For example, most countries have a progressive tax system, which is designed to help society’s poorer members; the idea that better-off people have a responsibility, or obligation, to aid less fortunate people is generally accepted to benefit society as a whole.

I believe this new Chinese law comes from a similar perspective: Chinese culture for thousands of years has relied on Confucianism, a strict and sweeping social code, to exist. Every government that has ruled China has placed social stability and harmony on a pedestal, above ideas such as militarism, political rights and individualism. This isn’t just arbitrary policy either: China remains a strongly collectivist society, with deference towards one’s parents often determining one’s career path, spouse, and so on.

This law, therefore, doesn’t come as a surprise. Indeed, the grandeur and force of codified law seems appropriate for the huge emphasis China places on filial piety. Few Chinese would disagree that filial piety is one of the most important social obligations that one may have. Thus, a law like this that some may consider invasive has great historical and cultural precedence.

Even though this law, as with any Chinese law, is technically arbitrary and undemocratic, filial piety is hardly a contested matter. What is contested, however, is the practicalities of the law, including the requirement to visit one’s parents every two months. I’m interested to see how this law is used, or misused.

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