In aging China, 94-year-old woman sues own children for not taking care of her
There's the oldest son, Zhou Mingde, who lives about a mile (1.5 kilometers) away from his mother. His pension is $13 a month, so he depends on the $30 each of his three daughters gives him on his birthday and during Chinese New Year. He sells one pig a year to buy medicine for his paraplegic wife. He is still farming corn and millet because he cannot afford to stop.
"I have to take care of my old mother. My wife. Myself," he says. "I am 71 years old already."
Then there's the middle son — the black sheep of the family — Zhou Yinxi. His daughter has schizophrenia, and his wife committed suicide. His current girlfriend once promised the family they would care for Zhang, but it never happened. Yinxi's argument: they're not married, so they're not obligated. Besides, at 68, he is broke and won't receive his pension for two years. "I'm also pretty helpless," he says.
Next up is the youngest, Zhou Gangming, 56, and his wife, Kuang, 58. Their only income will come from selling their two pigs and one cow, and their $16 monthly pension.
Gangming and his mother lived together until, in her eyes, Kuang came along and snatched away her beloved youngest son. Her oldest son confides that in the days when his mother was younger, stronger and meaner, she even beat Kuang.
Gangming says they are now too poor and exhausted to look after Zhang alone, but he knows they shouldn't abandon her.
"She's my mom," he says. "I have to care for her."
Finally, there is the distant daughter, 54-year-old Zhou Yunhua. By all accounts, she would like to care for her mother, but told her siblings she lives too far away.
In the end, the children asked their mother, "What should we do?"
She countered: "If none of you want to take care of me, what should I do?"
No one had an answer. So they went searching for one at the village court.
In December, after persistent reports of abuse, China amended its elder care law to require that adult children regularly visit and emotionally support their parents. The amendment, which took effect in July, also requires employers to give workers time off to visit their parents, though even proponents say that may be hard to enforce.
As the court officials explained the options to Zhang, she sat silently.
Finally, they offered a solution: Zhang could sue her children. Then the court could force them all to care for her equally.
She didn't even know what "sue" meant. But what other choice did she have?
Suddenly, everyone in the village knew her story and authorities began examining her claims of abuse. A village official, Zhang (no relation), says they aren't sure who to believe. In any event, she says, the children are "probably not beating her now."
The locals mostly consider the children neglectful and are shocked they aired their private battle in court, says Zhang, who only gave her last name, as is customary among Chinese government workers.
"Not being filial," she says, "is certainly not right."
The settlement was swift: The court ordered Mingde, Gangming and their sister to take care of their mother for four months of the year, and Yinxi to pay her $10 per month. The children must split Zhang's medical bills.
So far, Yinxi has paid nothing.
It is lunch time in Kuang's garage. She hands her mother-in-law a tin cup of noodles. Zhang silently shovels the food into her mouth, saying nothing as Kuang leaves.
"I won't get any appreciation for taking care of her," an exhausted Kuang says. "I also can't abandon her."
Kuang wants to move in with her own daughter in Hong Kong. But she can't.
"I've got to finish taking care of her," Kuang says. "Then I can think about moving to other places."
The meaning behind her words is clear: Her life will begin when her mother-in-law's ends.
She worries about her own future. But she believes her children will be there for her.
"I tell my children, 'If you can take care of me like I have taken care of your grandmother, then that is enough.'"
She is, she says, setting the example.
EPILOGUE: Zhang Zefang now lives temporarily with her eldest son, Mingde, as the court ordered.
Her new home is crowded with clutter and complaints. Mingde frets about the cost of medical care. A frustrated Yinxi cries. Zhang clutches her walking stick and stares vacantly as she talks.
"I just wish I could die."
Associated Press researcher Flora Ji contributed to this report.
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