A blog circulating on Chinese social media lists the various ways in which Chinese society today is “in a rush”. It mentions – among other things – having children through cesarean section, the race to the top in education,overuse of antibiotics and a preference for doing things through the “back door”. Few of these habits are new, but certainly the speed and pressure which dominates most people’s lives in China has increased dramatically over the past 30 years. This is reflected in much higher household incomes: rural incomes have increased eighteen-fold since 1990, while urban incomes have increased by a staggering two thousand percent. At the same time the poverty gap has widened considerably, so the fruits of China’s breakneck development are not evenly distributed.
The great disparities in Chinese society are no longer just difference in wealth or class. They are also as much to do with freedom from fear and anxiety. Any random event – illness, unemployment, the birth of a disabled child – can radically change people’s lives, setting them outside of the competitive rat race and threatening any future security.
A relative of ours in Guangzhou has a young son with complex learning difficulties – a combination of non-verbal autism and ADHD. The parents’ have sustained a severe drop in income, as the father has had to give up work to look after his son. The mother, a nurse, has had to abandon promotion, but still works day and night to keep the family going. It’s probably a familiar enough story to anyone with a severely disabled child. However the glitzy, consumerist surroundings of Guangzhou serve as a painful backdrop to family who desperately fear for the future of their child. He spends half of each weekday at a special school, accompanied by his mother: the school doesn’t have enough specialist staff to look after him. Once he reaches adolescence there may be no provision for him, other than at home or in a mental institution. Another child with similar needs at his school ended up in an orphanage.
This sense of insecurity was recently brought home to me at a recent lecture on China’s emerging system of family trusts that are mainly set up to guarantee the financial security of people with learning and other disabilities. Despite recent improvements in welfare for persons with disabilities, there are still enormous gaps and many parents worry deeply about the future security of their disabled children. Responding to the concerns of parents, the Beijing-based NGO Rong Ai Rong Le invited two speakers to explain China’s Trust Law and related legislation and advise on how assets can be placed in trust for the benefit of disabled family members.
This is a relatively new concept in China – not least because just one generation ago few people had any spare assets to set aside for the security of their offspring.In an earlier age everyone was – at least in theory – looked after by the state, whether in the form of their commune, school or work unit. Nowadays some people have accrued astonishing wealth, as can be seen by the number of luxury cars on China’s streets and the soaring price of apartments. Yet China still lacks a comprehensive welfare system: there are no care packages for persons with complex needs and welfare payments are limited and variable. So poorer families still struggle.
These disparities became obvious after the lecture, as a few parents asked how to invest multi-million yuan assets, while most parents clearly had little money to put into trust. The old Chinese phrase houguzhiyou (“fear ofthe future”) is still deeply rooted in the psyche of a nation that remembers war, starvation and the Cultural Revolution. For people with disabilities and their families, this anxiety is even more profound, as China’s rush to the top is leaving millions of people behind. Anxiety isn’t only a matter of money: it also includes a fear that society will simply not have the time or patience to allow people with disabilities to live decent and dignified lives.
Stephen Hallett 1st May 2018