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China: Growing Ranks Of Elderly Present Beijing With Dilemma

The world's most populous country, China, is also among its most rapidly aging ones. Many developed countries are facing the so-called "graying" trend as well. But unlike in much of the West, China is getting old before it gets rich. That has put the government in Beijing under pressure to bolster its retirement program before China's younger generations are overwhelmed.

Prague, 29 March 2005 (RFE/RL) -- In China's northern city of Tianjing, the Heping school district offers a variety of classes aimed at helping seniors deflect the effects of aging.

Instruction includes fashion modeling, calligraphy, the martial art of Tai Chi, photography -- even singing.

Fifty-five-year-old Pan Xu regularly attends the dance class. She says such activities help stimulate elderly minds after retirement.

"It's important to keep meeting friends -- not distance yourself from society as you get older. If you just stay home, you change. You might become depressed. Here, we socialize and support each other," Pan said.

People over the age of 65 already account for about 7 percent of China's population. That is expected to rise to 25 percent -- or one in four Chinese citizens -- by 2050.

The figure among industrialized countries is growing, too. But experts say senior citizens will still compose just one-fifth of the population by mid-century in the United States, for instance.

Fan Benzhang is the principal of the Heping district school. He says that how the government manages its aging population presents a tough question.

"How to deal with an aging society has become a question on everybody's minds. The aging population is growing quickly. So we have to figure out how to deal with the issue. We have done some research on this. We think it's important to build more homes for seniors," Fan said.

The increasing proportion of elderly Chinese has already translated into a heavier financial burden for the average family, which traditionally offers care for its elderly.

Beijing's one-child policy often means that a single married couple must support four elderly parents. And with the Chinese life expectancy likely to rise, those obliged to seek support of the younger generations could include more grandparents.

China is not alone in facing the "graying" trend, which has sent governments around the globe scrambling to overhaul their retirement systems.

But the trend has been particularly rapid in China over the past three decades, leaving the central government little choice but to act.

The Chinese government began to establish the country's current social-security system in 1997. But it remains poorly funded. There is also a major divide between levels of coverage among rural inhabitants -- who remain largely outside the system -- and their urban cousins.

Loraine West is an economist with the U.S. Census Bureau. She told RFE/RL recently that Beijing's big challenge will be extending the pension system to the countryside, where two-thirds of the population lives.

"It will be critical to see if the government can successfully expand this program, or put in place something comparable for the rural population. They're going to have fewer dependents as time passes," West said.

The rapid aging of the Chinese population is rivaled only by neighboring Japan. But unlike in China, Japan's population boom has come largely amid decades of postwar growth.

Jonathan Anderson, a managing director for UBS bank in Hong Kong, says more seniors will almost certainly mean a slowdown in economic growth.

"The magnitude is serious. You now do have a situation where the numbers of the [people] under 20 and under 25 are falling. The overall wage force in China is still rising, but within a decade it's going to peak and start to fall as well," Anderson said.

Any additional burden in the form of taxes or transfer payments could be particularly painful in a country that has largely fueled growth by supplying low-cost labor to the world.

Back in the Heping school district, Cui Yuxia is a 72-year-old modeling instructor. She suggests that classes for seniors at least help reduce health-care expenses.

"Even though they are retired, they are still willing to interact with society at large and [they] continue learning and stretching. After some training with me, they are healthier and stand up straight. Old people are often hunched over. Now they are straight -- they hold themselves up high and are willing to take care of themselves. They are willing to meet friends and relatives," Cui said.

A recent U.S. study suggests that even short-term exposure to social and physical activity is an important factor in maintaining cognitive vitality in old age.

So in Heping, the retirees keep dancing.

In Beijing, Communist officials must be hoping that such programs keep elderly Chinese healthy enough that they don't weigh too heavily on public spending.

(RFE/RL's Daisy Sindelar and Reuters reports contributed to this report.)