Okay, not the standard doom-laden or awe-inspiring China-related headline in the UK, but let me explain what grabbed my attention here.
For me, one of the joys of travelling in China is browsing through its local newspapers (there are officially more than 2,000). In Wednesday’s Ningxia Daily, published in the predominantly Muslim Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region in the deserts of north-central China, there’s a short article below a photo of a newly-married couple that begins: “On New Year’s Eve the weather outside might have been exceptionally bitter, but the atmosphere in Yuanzhou District old folks’ home, where a special wedding was underway, was warm indeed!” The bride, Su Aizhen, has been in a wheelchair since contracting polio as a child. Aged just 50, she’d be very young to enter an old folks’ home in the UK, but with nobody to look after her she fell back on this last safety net around the same time as 59-year-old Shen Siqian, who was considered to be getting on and had no other family to support him. The home arranged for a room for the newly-weds, with a new bed and quilt. “I never thought that, being old, I could ever have such a sweet wedding,” Shen Siqian is reported as saying, with tears in his eyes. I don’t doubt his sincerity: the Chinese have a strong cultural aversion to living alone, and reaching a lonely and penurious old age is an unenviable position to be in in modern-day China.
If the two had met, fallen in love as they did, and married in a retirement home in England, say, this would be a heartwarming story to beat the post-New Year blues. But the real point of the article, though, published in what is after all Ningxia’s official Communist Party organ, is not so much that Shen Siqian took on the responsibility of cooking and caring for Su Aizhen out of love or “to relieve the burden on the staff”, but that the two provide a model for ways to relieve the pressure on China’s creaking welfare system. Just as China is officially thinking of relaxing the one-child policy to address its ageing demographic, so it’s also trying to find ways to shift responsibility for the disabled and the elderly to what we might call its own “Big Society”.