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China's aging dilemma
China will go grey before it gets rich, as Huey Fern Tay reports.

First to some awkward facts for the country set to supplant the United States as the world's largest economy.

Within two decades more than one third of China's population will be aged over 60.

Before it gets rich, China will go grey.

It is a demographic challenge for Beijing that's been exacerbated by the country's one child policy, and it's reshaping China one family at a time.

China correspondent, Huey Fern Tay, reports.
(Sound of choir singing)

HUEY FERN TAY, REPORTER: A rich chorus soars high into the sky beyond the palace walls.

A group of elderly Chinese gather at a park opposite the Forbidden City every Sunday to sing songs from old movies and songs about the revolution.

People like Mr Ju have been doing this faithfully for many years out of nostalgia for the good old days.

MR JU (Translation): We've been singing these songs since we were young. We used to sing them at school and at work. And we're still singing these songs now we're retired. We are familiar with them and can express our feelings this way.

HUEY FERN TAY: Healthy ageing is a lifestyle that's being promoted in China, home to the largest elderly population in the world. Living standards have improved greatly and a third of China's population is expected to exceed the age of 60 by 2030.

China's challenge has been partially blamed on its one child policy that's been in place for more than three decades. The elderly no longer have a huge extended family network to rely on.

ZHU LIN, DEPUTY DIRECTOR, SONGTANG HOSPICE (Translation): Many young couples have four old people to take care of. This is a huge pressure on society.

HUEY FERN TAY: China doesn't have a comprehensive pension or welfare scheme for its elderly. This helps explain why the responsibility continues to fall on families to care for them.

But taking care of the elderly is also a confusion value that's drummed into every Chinese which is why when Songtang Hospice opened 25 years ago there was strong resistance from the community.

The centre's deputy director, Zhu Lin, remembers the time when Songtang was the only one in the country to offer the elderly the chance to die with dignity.

ZHU LIN (Translation): In the past people were afraid of being reprimanded by their neighbours for sending their parents or grandparents to facilities like ours because they would be seen as failing in their duty. But gradually people have come to realise institutions like ours can help them accomplish many things.

HUEY FERN TAY: Private businesses are gradually cashing on the so-called silver market by building more and more nursing homes. But the government is also in a race against time to do something, from providing more day care centres for the elderly to beefing up its pension scheme.

But there's also been some suggestion that perhaps Beijing needs to increase its retirement age and abandon its one child policy.

The last proposal hasn't won over Wu Camping. Ninety-year-old Mr Wu is dubbed China's population guru and widely revered in the country for pioneering population research in the early 70s.

WU CAMPING, RENMIN UNIVERSITY: Even you relax, it is impossible to cope with the ageing problem. It takes time. You know you have to bring up the children, how many years, 20 or 40 years, two generations at least.

HUEY FERN TAY: The long term plan is to beef up the country's pension system, especially in the rural areas, where an ageing population has been made more acute by the wave of young villagers who leave every year for better opportunities in the city. But local governments across the country are struggling to fund the bulk of the system.

WU CAMPING: Some local government wants to - they do not have enough money to put to the elderly. In this case, they even want to get from the land, from the land get all the moneys.

HUEY FERN TAY: There's an urgent need for China to strengthen its social safety net, not only because its people need it, but also because a stronger welfare system will give people the confidence to spend more, helping China achieve its goal of shifting the country towards consumption led growth.
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