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Public Resentment is Rising Over China’s Pension Crisis

Retirees practice "Cola Ball" with music, an invented community activity in central Beijing, Oct. 17, 2013. China is close to announcing long-awaited reforms to its pension system, whose assets are estimated to have already fallen $3 trillion behind projected future payouts.
Retirees practice "Cola Ball" with music, an invented community activity in central Beijing, Oct. 17, 2013. China is close to announcing long-awaited reforms to its pension system, whose assets are estimated to have already fallen $3 trillion behind projected future payouts.

A recent report that says China’s state pension fund will run dry by 2035 has stirred up a heated discussion online. Some Chinese netizens complain that the retirees are receiving too handsome of a monthly pension payment while others are worried if the cash-strapped fund will collapse before they retire.

Economists say an urgent reform is needed to address China’s flawed pension scheme – a crisis they say will be further worsen by the country’s fast-aging population, shrinking workforce and low birth rate.

China’s urban worker pension fund, the backbone of the country’s state pension system, held a reserve of 4.8 trillion yuan (US$714 billion) at the end of 2018, or a meager 5.3 percent of its gross domestic product, according to a report released last week by government-supported Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Bankruptcy in Sight

The fund, established in 1997, is projected to peak at 6.99 trillion yuan in 2027 before it steadily runs out of money before 2035, the government think tank added.

And the gap between contributions and outlays could reach 11 trillion yuan by 2050, which means that each retired citizen will be supported by only one worker, down from the current level of two, the academy estimated.

The fact that the country’s public pension system appears to be financially unsustainable is fueling worries among the general public, particularly young workers.

On Weibo, China’s Twitter-like microblogging site, one young tech worker complained that his long work hours wouldn’t even guarantee him a better pension protection in his retirement.

“The point of [encouraging] us to work the 996 schedule [9 a.m. to 9 p.m. six days a week] is that we can work to death before we retire so as to perfectly save the country’s under-funded pension system a problem. Is it?” he wrote.

The Privileged Few

Many others questioned why some of the nation’s retirees, especially civil servants, seem to be claiming an unfair level of pension payments.

“My friend is a bus driver, whose monthly wage is 3,000 yuan. But his father-in-law is paid 5,000 yuan [a month] in his retirement. What an irony!,” wrote one Weibo user and another added “the pension payments for civil servants are just too high!”

Frank Xie, an associate professor of marketing at the University of South Carolina Aiken, said that mismanagement is the biggest problem facing China’s pension system especially when the ruling Communist Party is using public funds to pay off the privileged few in exchange for their support for the regime.

“The Communist Party is buying off many middle- to highly-ranked government officials and civil servants, who now live a comfortable life. For example, average workers may be receiving [a monthly pension payment of] 2,000 to 3,000 yuan in their retirement, but, in contrast, they [government employees] are entitled to 6000, 7000 or even 10,000 yuan [in monthly pension payments],” Xie said.

Public resentment is rising over the discrepancy of the income replacement rate between retired government employees and urban workers, the professor added.

Discrimination Against Farmers and Migrant Workers

Making matters worse, the system discriminates against the nation’s farmers and migrant workers – a financially-disadvantaged group who are in desperate need of a social safety net, Professor Xie added.

Official statistics show that, as of 2017, farmers and migrant workers totaled a population of 287 million, or nearly 21% of its total population.

A farmer surnamed Zhou from Hebei province said that it’s unfair that farmers are excluded from the public pension system.

And most farmers and migrant workers are so under-paid that they have no spare money to contribute to any commercial pension funds even if such service is available, he added.

“I will worry about my life in retirement when it comes,” he told VOA.

Xie of the University of South Carolina Aiken argued that China should soon initiative reform proposals to address the country’s ill-designed pension system.

Reform Initiatives

As a starter, the system should be made universal to all citizens, he said, adding that extending the age of retirement or raising the level of contributions from workers are two possible ways to ease the fund’s financial burden.

But both solutions are sure to provoke public outcry, challenging the party’s rule, the professor added.

In China, men and women are encouraged to retire respectively at the age of 65 and 60 – five years later than the mandatory age.

And the country’s social security regulations require employers to pay up to 20 percent of their employees’ salaries into the state pension fund while employees are required to contribute 8 percent of their wages.

Zhong Wei, professor of finance at Beijing Normal University, warned last year that the pension crisis and care for the elderly would pose one of five major “gray rhinos” or obvious dangers facing China this year. The other obvious dangers would be declining wages and tax revenues.

Reuters reported recently that, after Beijing last month approved the first foreign insurer to set up pension insurance business, more foreign insurers are gearing up to tap the country’s US$1.6 trillion pension market.

But professor Xie doubted the open-up policy will help ease China’s pension fund crisis.

“Most people can’t afford to pay for the private service. Under such circumstances, foreign insurers can only target those who are relatively wealthy as their business strategy. That won’t do much to ease China’s pension crisis,” Xie said.