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Last Updated: Monday, 16 October 2006, 00:05 GMT 01:05 UK
China braced for pensioner boom
By Quentin Sommerville
BBC News, Shanghai

Every day at 8am, home help Wei Qing arrives at pensioner Ge Qigong's one-roomed apartment and sets about cleaning the cramped but tidy space.

Wei Qing (left) and Ge Qigong
Ge Qigong (right) relies on the state to look after him

Mr Ge is not wealthy. Wei Qing's first job is to unlock the bathroom, which is shared by nine families.

"We're just like friends," she said. "I've been looking after him for a year, when I'm done with my chores we sit down and have a chat."

Her wages are paid by the Shanghai government. Mr Ge said he would not be able to afford to pay on his own.

"I didn't get any pension from the pen company I used to work for," he said. "I have to rely on the government, they give us RMB 460 (30) a month and they take care of our medical bills."

At the beginning stage of the one-child policy... no one really realised that ageing would be such a serious population or social problem
Professor Peng Xizhe
Shanghai's Fudan University

This level of care - his rent is also paid - is not uncommon in Shanghai.

Although China is still a developing country, the city is proud of the way it looks after its many pensioners.

But future generations of pensioners may not be so lucky.

Around 7.5% of the Chinese population is over 65, but in the next quarter century that number will increase to 30%. It will be one of the greatest demographic changes in history.

"The pressure on the working age population will be much bigger than before," said Professor Peng Xizhe, a population expert, at Shanghai's Fudan University.

"Ageing is mainly caused by China's population control programmes in the past. At the beginning stage of the one-child policy... no one really realised that ageing would be such a serious population or social problem," he added.

Corruption case

The drop in fertility caused by the so-called one-child policy is beginning to feed through into the working population.

This generation of Chinese pensioners are supported by at least six workers paying taxes. In 30 years time there will only be three workers for every Chinese pensioner.

Graph

And as China's population ages, it will become less economically productive, according to Professor Peng.

Parts of the labour force will shift from producing goods, into social services like medical care for the elderly.

"We'll have much less labour to produce things," he said.

And as China develops, people are living longer. The average life expectancy for a woman born in Shanghai is now 82 years old, equivalent to many developed countries.

And Shanghai is facing another problem. Government officials have been accused of misappropriating over 200m ($400m) from the city's pension fund - leaving local residents angry.

"China has too many corruption cases," complained one woman, who wished to remain anonymous. "The working class shouldn't have such a hard life, they've contributed a lot in their lifetime, and they've been cheated of what's due to them."

Pensioners in Pudong, China
Shanghai's pensioners currently enjoy a host of laid-on activities

For now though, the city's pensioners enjoy a host of government-sponsored services. In a Pudong community centre, pensioners gather every Friday for a sing-along.

The mood is carefree, and one of the most popular songs is called "be open-minded". The moral of this song is that old people should enjoy life while they can and should not worry about saving for a rainy day.

China's leaders are unlikely to share the sentiments.

With a population that is living longer and a workforce that is getting smaller, the pressure is on China to get rich before it gets old.


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