Eugene Hoshiko, Associated Press
FUSHENG, China — The daughter-in-law smashes the cockroach under her foot and rolls open the rusted metal doors to the garage. Light spills onto a small figure huddled on a straw mattress in a dank room. A curious face peers out.
The face is the most infamous in this village tucked away in the lush green mountains of southwest China. It's the face of Kuang Shiying's 94-year-old mother-in-law — better known as the little old lady who sued her own children for not taking care of her.
The drama that is playing out inside this ramshackle house reflects a wider and increasingly urgent dilemma. The world's population is aging fast, due to longer life spans and lower birth rates, and there will soon be more old people than young for the first time in history. This demographic about-turn has left families and governments struggling to decide: Who is responsible for the care of the elderly?
A handful of countries, such as India, France and Ukraine, require adult children to financially support their parents, mandating what was once a cultural given. Similar laws are in place in 29 U.S. states, Puerto Rico and most of Canada, though they are little known and rarely enforced because government funds help support the old. In Singapore, parents can sue their adult children for an allowance; those who fail to comply can face six months in jail.
In China, where aid is scarce and family loyalty is a cornerstone of society, more than 1,000 parents have already sued their children for financial support over the last 15 years. But in December, the government went further, and amended its elder care law to require that children also support their parents emotionally. Children who don't visit their parents can be taken to court — by mom and dad.
The law pits the expectations of society against the complexities of family and puts courts in the position of regulating the relationship between parent and child.
Which then begs the question: How do you legislate love?
Zhang Zefang hardly looks like the vindictive matriarch many assume she must be. A tiny woman with blotchy skin, she stares at visitors through half-blinded eyes.
Zhang is one of about 3,800 people who live in the village of Fusheng, where life seems frozen in a long-ago era. Mothers trudge up steep roads with babies in bamboo baskets strapped to their backs. Farmers balance poles across their shoulders to lug crops over hills and past orange groves. The pace is slow and the atmosphere placid.
But inside Kuang and Zhang's home, there is war.
Resentment hangs in the air, acrid and sharp like the stench from the urine-filled bucket next to Zhang's bed. The cluttered storage space she calls home is as loveless as it is lightless. This is the epicenter of a family feud that erupted amid accusations of lying, of ungratefulness, of abuse and neglect and broken promises.
Zhang wants you to know this: She never wanted to take her children to court. She never wanted any of this.
"I never thought about whether my kids would take care of me when I was old," she says. "I just focused on taking care of them."
Her eyes begin to water. Inside her room, there is no heat to ward off the damp chill, no window to the outside world. Zhang spends her days alone in the dark, accompanied only by the roaches, the mess and the memories of a life that started out tough and seems destined to end the same way.
She has all the time in the world to tell her side of the story. From the shadows, she begins to speak.
It used to be in China that growing old meant earning the respect of the young, and the idea of filial piety, or honoring your parents, was instilled from birth. Parents cared for their children, and their children later cared for them. Neither side had a choice.
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