When the Washington Post’s Beijing correspondent, Max Fisher, flew to Beijing, China, in March, he had an inkling something was up.
Despite being in the world’s most populous country for years, “it always seemed like not everyone had understood that everybody’s age factor is a bit more than normal,” he said.
He was right. In China, the state has declared that people over 60 are “sensitive populations” who should not fly to certain regions of the country — an announcement not seen since World War II. Now, like cities around the world, Beijing is implementing steps to prevent a disaster, according to the state-run Global Times. The city canceled 10 flights in March and February and is trying to identify vulnerable demographics, people who are susceptible to falls, preexisting health conditions, high blood pressure, lung disease, diabetes and depression.
The announcement seems to have struck a nerve, and the media, scholars and prominent people are weighing in.
When the press reported the news in January, Chinese journalist Li Tianping said that she felt the announcement would become a “permanent part of China’s life.” The writer, who was born in 1992, called the initiative a “new cultural reprogramming.” The local Communist Party’s newspaper, the People’s Daily, likened the announcement to “China’s own Homeland Security.”
What was once just a slogan has become a major cultural initiative, fitting for a country that has never met a national identity crisis it didn’t try to wipe away. Earlier this year, authorities in Tibet, a remote, mountainous region that is home to a number of wealthy and technologically-advanced residents, started enforcing a slew of old age and personal document restrictions.
But, as Beijing tries to get ahead of a potential epidemic of elderly wandering — while calculating a cost estimate — officials are running into technical issues.
In March, the Ministry of Health ordered the head of the National Bureau of Statistics to offer up information on elderly pilots, the value of passports in accordance with a new law requiring them for senior citizens, the type of medicine doctors are prescribed and the quality of heat.
“It is also difficult to narrow the effects to a few special groups,” the state-run Beijing News reported on April 24.
The same day, the China Daily newspaper published an article by Kuang Mingsheng, director of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, arguing that the warning is good for everyone. China’s demographic changes mean that “there may be several thousand elderly seniors a day going on unregistered jiaozi tours, which may spark trouble and potential disasters for domestic management.”
“The elderly are aging at unprecedented rates, and some localities are sometimes obsessed with drawing in this surplus labor,” he said.
There is some evidence that China is cracking down on trips: According to a report by Confucius Institute China-U.S. executive director Jing Dai, the number of trips by Chinese senior citizens to Beijing fell 33 percent last year. In 2015, 38,300 people participated in jiaozi trips, compared to 47,000 in 2016.
The state-run China Daily also reported that about 12 percent of the people that passed through Beijing airport in March or April had to undergo searches for documentation or proof of age.
In April, the Chinese Association of International Travel issued an advisory for senior citizens visiting the United States, advising them to pack medication and set up chaperones and warnings such as “visit near exits or main bus stop — and bring GPS, not wallet or ID cards.”
But the moves have received much less attention back home, said Tom Phillips, an associate professor at the department of history and literature at the University of Maryland, College Park.
“These things are becoming more mainstream, but we have still not seen it reflected back home,” he said.
As many as 750,000 Americans now travel to China every year, according to U.S. Census estimates.
Many of the elderly traveled to China after they were released from prison after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. They came to the country to visit the elderly relatives, offering a rare opportunity for face-to-face contact during the austere era, Phillips said.
That’s one of the main reasons the United States has not always been quick to accept its aging population. Yet as China changes its guidelines, the two countries’ “failure to evolve has really exacerbated this new demographic crisis,” Phillips said.