Elderly man on a computer in Guilin, China
Qin Peipei

BEIJING — A video is making the rounds across China's internet. On a bus in the western city of Xi'an, an elderly man is seen shouting at a pregnant woman that she should give up her seat. "I am an old person! Can't you see?" His attitude was so appalling that commentators online came down clearly in favor of the pregnant lady rather than the old man.

Still, we sometimes forget that utter respect for the old used to be a Chinese tradition. There have been some high-profile incidents in recent years of conflict caused by indignant elderly. Sometimes old people have gone as far as slapping youngsters because they were too slow to give up their seats. Far more extreme is the case of a retired prosecutor deliberately driving into a student on campus just because he wanted to have his revenge on the youth in society.

Though it is too arbitrary to conclude that all the elderly are "going bad," as some claim, the situation is worthy of reflection. China's economy, technology and society are undergoing rapid development and transformation. While young people can adapt to the fast-changing times, old people are more likely to feel alienated because of their declining learning ability, social isolation and fixed ideas.

To understand the bizarre behavior of certain elderly persons, we must recall that China went through quite a long period of material deprivation. Public services were scarce. For instance, squeezing oneself onto a packed bus used to be the only way to get around. As a result, though times have changed, the elderly have often not altered their behavior patterns, even when taking high-speed rail or planes. It's simply incomprehensible to young people why older folk are often pushing in line even though they all have their seats booked ahead of time.

Old people are more likely to feel alienated.

Family conflicts can also arise over a dish of food left overnight, with the elderly never wanting to throw away anything. Most of all, pre-modern Chinese society was a family-centered acquaintance society. In a big family with a clan culture, the elderly held a position of authority and always had the last word. "All good deeds start from filial piety," as the Chinese saying goes. As a result, it is almost mission impossible to find any old Chinese wisdom dedicated to "teaching" the aged.


A man sits outside for a smoke in Dali, China — Photo: Tim Quijano

Under the Communist system, people were allocated a job and lived in a compound community, their "danwei," the communal organization one worked for. In those days, youngsters certainly did not dare speak out to their neighborhood uncles and aunties when they disagreed with them. Not only because they'd be regarded as disrespectful to the older generation, but also because they'd be considered as challenging the communal organization's authority.

Today, the whole of society is paying for the bad side of these lingering traditions. The younger generation lacks the skill to teach the older generation. Meanwhile, the latter wouldn't be willing to listen anyway. In their view, they have gone through a whole lifetime listening to parents and teachers preaching, and have worked very hard to earn their proverbial bowl of rice. Now, when they can finally relax and just do what they see fit, they are not going to be told anything.

Senior citizens risk becoming trapped in our fast-paced life.

It is therefore challenging to explain to these elderly, who are being left behind, how to connect with this new world that is increasingly dominated by information technology. Apart from catering to their basic needs, seniors obviously have to be guided in how they share public resources with strangers, how to control their emotions, and why they should correct their unreasonable behavior.

It's high time Chinese elderly get up to speed with the lessons of the modern world. Their ideas must evolve so they can stop pestering their offspring to get married or have children. On the flip side, they need to be wary that there are frauds out there — people who are supposedly giving them free healthcare classes, or selling them financial products on their doorstep or on the internet. And yes, they also have to be taught that swearing or physically abusing somebody on public transport is just not okay.

In brief, these elderly ought to learn basic modern concepts such as privacy and rights. And it is up to the younger generation to assume this responsibility of teaching these lessons to the elderly. In demographic terms, China is becoming an aging society, and senior citizens, just like their children, risk becoming trapped in our fast-paced life. Apart from material comfort, the care that Chinese elderly need even more today are the skills of modern communication that can give them access to the gifts of modern times.

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Why Chinese Cities Waste Millions On Vanity Building Projects

The so-called "White Elephants," or massive building projects that go unused, keep going up across China as local officials mix vanity and a misdirected attempt to attract business and tourists. A perfect example the 58-meter, $230 million statue of Guan Yu, a beloved military figure from the Third Century, that nobody seems interested in visiting.

Statue of Guan Yu in Jingzhou Park, China

Chen Zhe

BEIJING — The Chinese Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development recently ordered the relocation of a giant statue in Jingzhou, in the central province of Hubei. The 58-meter, 1,200-ton statue depicts Guan Yu, a widely worshipped military figure from the Eastern Han Dynasty in the Third century A.D.

The government said it ordered the removal because the towering presence "ruins the character and culture of Jingzhou as a historic city," and is "vain and wasteful." The relocation project wound up costing the taxpayers approximately ¥300 million ($46 million).

Huge monuments as "intellectual property" for a city

In recent years local authorities in China have often raced to create what is euphemistically dubbed IP (intellectual property), in the form of a signature building in their city. But by now, we have often seen negative consequences of such projects, which evolved from luxurious government offices to skyscrapers for businesses and residences. And now, it is the construction of cultural landmarks. Some of these "white elephant" projects, even if they reach the scale of the Guan Yu statue, or do not necessarily violate any regulations, are a real problem for society.

It doesn't take much to be able to differentiate between a project constructed to score political points and a project destined for the people's benefit. You can see right away when construction projects neglect the physical conditions of their location. The over the top government buildings, which for numerous years mushroomed in many corners of China, even in the poorest regional cities, are the most obvious examples.

Homebuyers looking at models of apartment buildings in Shanghai, China — Photo: Imaginechina/ZUMA

Guan Yu transformed into White Elephant

A project truly catering to people's benefit would address their most urgent needs and would be systematically conceived of and designed to play a practical role. Unfortunately, due to a dearth of true creativity, too many cities' expression of their rich cultural heritage is reduced to just building peculiar cultural landmarks. The statue of Guan Yu in Jingzhou is a perfect example.

Long ago Jinzhou was a strategic hub linking the North and the South of China. But its development has lagged behind coastal cities since the launch of economic reform a generation ago.

This is why the city's policymakers came up with the idea of using the place's most popular and glorified personality, Guan Yu (who some refer to as Guan Gong). He is portrayed in the 14th-century Chinese classic "The Romance of the Three Kingdoms" as a righteous and loyal warrior. With the aim of luring tourists, the city leaders decided to use him to create the city's core attraction, their own IP.

Opened in June 2016, the park hosting the statue comprises a surface of 228 acres. In total it cost ¥1.5 billion ($232 million) to build; the statue alone was ¥173 million ($27 million). Alas, since the park opened its doors more than four years ago, the revenue to date is a mere ¥13 million ($2 million). This was definitely not a cost-effective investment and obviously functions neither as a city icon nor a cultural tourism brand as the city authorities had hoped.

China's blind pursuit of skyscrapers

Some may point out the many landmarks hyped on social media precisely because they are peculiar, big or even ugly. However, this kind of attention will not last and is definitely not a responsible or sustainable concept. There is surely no lack of local politicians who will contend for attention by coming up with huge, strange constructions. For those who can't find a representative figure, why not build a 40-meter tall potato in Dingxi, Gansu Province, a 50-meter peony in Luoyang, Shanxi Province, and maybe a 60-meter green onion in Zhangqiu, Shandong Province?

It is to stop this blind pursuit of skyscrapers and useless buildings that, early this month, the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development issued a new regulation to avoid local authorities' deviation from people's real necessities, ridiculous wasted costs and over-consumption of energy.

I hope those responsible for the creation of a city's attractiveness will not simply go for visual impact, but instead create something that inspires people's intelligence, sustains admiration and keeps them coming back for more.

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