My take on China’s ageing population

Plusieurs de mes reportages ou enquêtes pour Le Monde Diplomatique ont été traduites vers l’anglais. Voici donc la version anglaise de mon sujet “immersif” dans un village du Hebei, seulement peuplé de personnes âgées, publié en juin 2013. Il s’agissait d’une commande de longue narration dans le cadre d’une édition spéciale sur la question de la vieillesse, dans le monde. Cest naturellement ce type de travail dont je suis de plus en plus friand.

Village of Age

Old people in China used to live with their children, who cared for them, in accordance with Confucian teachings. Now the young have migrated to the cities and more than half of the 185 million Chinese over 65 live alone.

From the main road, it is hard to spot Qin Zhuang. The village is hidden behind factories that assemble production machinery for packaging materials, and chemical fertiliser plants. The air is heavily polluted.

Qin Zhuang (population 800) is in Hebei Province, 300km south of Beijing. The easiest way to get there is to follow the Grand Canal, an extraordinary feat of civil engineering from the Sui dynasty (581-618) that runs nearly 1800km from Beijing to Hangzhou in the south. The reeds at the water’s edge catch the bright yellow foam that the slow current has carried from a paper factory 80km upstream. On one side of the canal are fields of wheat, divided into narrow strips. Behind them stand little brick houses sheltered by orderly rows of poplars. This is where the ageing smallholder farmers of Qin Zhuang live.

Qin Xuexi, 65, greeted us warmly, offering Red Pagoda Mountain cigarettes. Dressed in a synthetic fur coat and nylon oversleeves, with a boyish haircut and discreet makeup, she solemnly showed us around the muddy alleyways. One paved with bricks in a herringbone pattern led to a little Buddhist temple. “We used the materials we had,” said Qin. “We repainted the temple red, this year, to smarten it up a bit. Some of the farmers come to pray here… that they will become civil servants.” She has a good sense of humour; as head of the village branch of the Communist Party she needs it. “Over-60s make up 14% of the population in China (1). In this village, they are 70% of the population, and 100% of them live in poverty.”

Qin, a retired smallholder, took on this role two years ago, and is paid 600 yuan ($97) a month. It’s the first time since the People’s Republic was founded that a woman has been head of the local branch of the party. People told me: “It’s because she is always the first to take action on our behalf. She brought up five children, you know” and “She’s very resourceful, and she holds her ground when party officials start talking of extravagant projects.” Unlike Zheng Ronglin, party chief in a village nearby, hated by local smallholders because it is claimed he accepted a bribe from the boss of a polluting cellulose factory, Qin has unanimous support.

The villagers rely on her to restore their quality of life, which has suffered from the unchecked spread of heavy industry and a decline in family values. In the mid-1990s, the more adventurous villagers left their farms to take up jobs in factories and on building sites springing up all over China. Many sent home money to maintain or enlarge the farms, but the latest generation of migrants have been completely seduced by the new urban lifestyle, more comfortable but also more costly.

Everyone is called Qin

Dongguang (population 70,000), the county town 15km away, doesn’t yet have a McDonald’s, only a Dico’s, the Chinese substitute. A six-lane motorway is nearing completion. On either side, the ground has been cleared, and a forest of cranes shows where apartment blocks will soon be built. Billboards promise surprisingly wide green spaces between the towers, where flats will sell for 4,000 yuan ($647) a square metre. “Rural hukou [internal passport] accepted,” says the ad. Migrant workers don’t usually have the right to buy an apartment in towns and cities, or send their children to local schools even if they are well established in the area: they are discriminated against because their hukou identifies them as rural residents. Dongguang is absorbing smallholder farmers from the surrounding area, including those who dream of city life.

In November 2012, shortly after the Communist Party’s 18th national congress, Qin Xuexi was invited to Dongguang by party officials. She listened dutifully to a 74-page lecture cataloguing the achievements of outgoing secretary-general Hu Jintao, then went home, by bus.

Qin holds weekly meetings in the back room of the village’s only grocery store. The comrades sit on beer cartons or on the shopkeeper’s concrete kang, a sleeping platform heated from underneath by a charcoal fire. A poster on the wall praises the People’s Liberation Army. Another advertises the aphrodisiac properties of a cheap rice wine. The ceiling is covered with hundreds of flattened soft drink cans. Everyone at the meeting has the same surname: Qin.

In the past seven years, four factories have moved into Qin territory. In sheet metal sheds, sometimes built between two ruined farmhouses, young men assemble machines that will produce cellophane or corrugated cardboard. None are from the village, or even Hebei Province; they come from Qinghai, a poor province in northwestern China, where the monthly basic wage is less than 800 yuan ($130).

Qin Zhuang has five motor vehicles: a grey Wuling van that belongs to the grocer, and four red three-wheelers that cost 20,000 yuan ($3,233) each, designed for handicapped people. “People here are too old. They haven’t the money or the courage to drive a car on roads crowded with speeding lorries,” said Qin Xuexi.

But if the smallholders are not careful, their fields will disappear. Last year, in the next village, a developer started building four residential blocks on abandoned land. “They say it’s so that we can live in greater comfort, that we can no longer live the old way, getting our water from a well, and using a hole in the back yard for a toilet.” But the flats are so big (120-300 square metres) that they are out of the villagers’ reach: the smallest cost 240,000 yuan ($38,800), and then there is gas heating to pay for.

‘Beautiful town by the river’

“The flats are aimed at shopkeepers with household incomes of between 200,000 and 300,000 yuan [$48,500] a year,” the developer said, proudly showing us the gate to the development, with two gilded pillars and a marble plaque bearing the inscription “The beautiful town by the river”. A concrete track links the development to the main road.

Qin Xuexi tries to ensure that the retired smallholders are farming and maintaining their land, even if they only get a few sacks of maize or flour from it: “Every year, in January, we give smallholders a bonus of 687 yuan.” Officially this is aid, intended to help them buy chemical fertilisers from the nearby Hua Ge factory. “But they can spend it however they like. People here don’t really like chemical fertilisers any more.” They have good reason: the factory has polluted the drinking water supply of 60 villages. Strange ads have appeared on walls: “To take a shower in clean water, call this number…”

For an annual contribution of 40 yuan ($6.50), the retirees of Qin Zhuang get 80% of their health treatment costs and 30% of their prescription costs reimbursed, under a national programme. Treatment isn’t always adequate – water pollution is making the villagers sicker each year. The village doctor, 34, inherited the practice from his father. His medicine cabinet mainly holds blood pressure pills: “Twice a year, in spring and autumn, people go off to the hospital at Lian Zheng, half an hour’s walk away. They stay there for a week, and get a whole series of tests and injections. It only costs them 200 yuan [$32].”

The other major figure in Qin Zhuang is the grocer, Qin Ruhe, 65, who has run the only shop for 45 years, providing some access to the consumer society the villagers see on television: 30 brands of cigarettes, dehydrated tea with milk, potato crisps in five flavours. Apart from eggs and vegetables, everything in the shop is plastic wrapped and displayed on strong wooden shelves. “In the early days, I only sold 20 different products,” said Qin. “You could have bought my entire stock for 150 yuan.” In the 1980s, an ice cream manufacturer gave him a freezer and the villagers discovered ice cream.

“I remember having to teach the villagers how to use a cigarette lighter to light a fire. Some customers just won’t hear of progress. I still have to get my abacus out for them.” For the past year, Qin Ruhe has been offering subscriptions to China Telecom’s 3G network. “But nobody here knows how to use a computer, let alone a smartphone.” Qin fetches his supplies from town in his van. He has no cash register, just a wooden box (“at least 200 years old”) with a slit through which he posts the notes.

Qin’s neighbours claim he has 100,000 yuan ($16,166) in savings. They are jealous because his second daughter, now 32, was born when China’s single child policy had just been introduced, so he only had to pay a 200-yuan fine. Families whose children were born later paid 10 times more, had their children in secret, or even killed them.

They say he is a hard man: “Once, he demanded that his sister pay him 100 yuan, as a kind of fine, because a tree in her garden was touching his electric power cable.” Yet the grocer often gives credit, and the smallholders pay him back after the harvest. Qin Ruhe said: “I read the papers, and when people want to hear the latest news from Beijing, they ask me.” He does his best to find sweets for the smallholders’ grandchildren (around 50 live in Qin Zhuang and go to school in a neighbouring village), the latest kind that they see on the cartoon channel, Kaku TV: “Last year, they all wanted orange chewing gum. I had terrible trouble finding it. All these kids are being brought up by old people, and their parents are far away… it’s not much fun for them.”

The East is Red

We stayed with Zhou Fengjun, 64, and his wife Ge Hairong, 62. The front wall of their old farmhouse bears the inscription “The East is Red”, from a Cultural Revolution song. The interior is modest: no fridge, no washing machine, just a coal-fired boiler and an air conditioner, which they bought four years ago, with the help of a government grant aimed at encouraging rural dwellers to buy modern appliances.

The couple are both handicapped. They were brought together by a professional matchmaker, for a fee of 50 yuan. It was love at first sight: “My wife is hard-working and looks after me very well,” said Zhou. “She has dinner ready and pours me a glass of rice wine when I get home. I do the shopping for her, and I wear my clothes for as long as possible, so she doesn’t tire herself washing them all the time.” Zhou grows cotton and maize on a 0.3-hectare plot. His wife looks after the child of their only son, who works as a salesman in a neighbouring province for 10 months of the year.

In September 2011 Ge slipped and fell on an icy patch. She fractured her right knee, already damaged by polio in childhood. The operation to mend it cost 16,000 yuan ($2,587) and was not reimbursed. At least, she jokes, the steel pins in her knee allow her to predict the weather: “When it hurts, it means it’s going to rain the next day.”

To pay the hospital bill, Zhou went off to work on a line for the new high-speed train to Nanchang. He earned 80 yuan a day, and was only paid at the end of his one-year contract. “Our son only sent 3,000 yuan, and didn’t once come and see his mother during the two weeks she was in hospital.”

Farm as day nursery

Because Ge has difficulty walking, she rarely leaves the house, and minds the village’s smaller children. The farm has become a day nursery, with pictures of animals and early learning posters on every door, and a kite hanging on the wall. “If parents have one child too many, they have to hide it until they can pay the fine. In my day, things were far stricter. You had to kill the second child yourself, with poison you were given by a government official, or by strangling it.” A message painted on a wall in a nearby street exhorts villagers to “Be honest with the Family Planning Bureau.”

At eight o’clock every morning, if the track is dry, Zhou gets on his electric delivery tricycle and sets off on a tour of 10 villages. He collects empty plastic bottles and sells them by weight. He complains that his son never sends money, only clothes and powdered milk for the baby. Zhou and Ge each have a pension of 60 yuan a month. Since September 2009, the government has been experimenting with a new pension system in rural areas: everyone between the ages of 18 and 59 pays contributions of between 100 and 500 yuan a year. From the age of 60, they get an allowance of at least 59 yuan a month (2). Zhou’s son pays in 100 yuan a year. “Thanks to the new system, our household income is now 5,000 yuan [$808] a year,” said Ge.

When I asked him what he spent the most money on, Zhou immediately said: “Rice wine.” Then he shouted: “Bottoms up!” drained his fourth glass in one go and vomited his dinner all over the table, for which he apologised like a child. Later he warned me: “Watch out for the grocer: he’s telling everyone you’re a spy.”

At 63, Liu Ruiyan remains important to the people of Qin Zhuang, where she has lived for 30 years: she’s the village’s official matchmaker. She enjoys food and drink, and spends all day going from house to house. She used to be a Christian: “But the pastor told us it was wicked to play mahjong, so I gave up religion.” In January she arranged a match between two people in their fifties: “They both had children. The woman’s husband had committed suicide: he had entrusted all his savings to his brother, who was going to set up a business, but the brother lost everything. The man had a lot of land, and he was looking for a woman who liked working hard. His previous wife, who was from Manchuria, smoked too much and gambled a lot. She left him suddenly, after 10 years of marriage.” Occasionally, Liu brings women together – two old ladies who can help each other: “But never two men. I’d be too worried about what people said behind my back.”

But matchmaking is not enough to pay the bills. Qin Bing Zhang, Liu’s 64-year-old husband, regularly goes off to work on building sites in town. As we left the village I saw a placard advertising The Exotic Charms of Paris, a Dongguang studio for wedding photos. Below it, hastily painted, was the phone number of a company that specialises in demolishing abandoned farms.

Translated by Charles Goulden

Jordan Pouille is a journalist in Beijing.

(1) And will make up 30% by 2050.

(2) “China extending pension program to countryside“, China Daily, Beijing, 16 September 2011.

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