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Singing practise amongst residents of the Sun City retirement complex for the elderly in Beijing. 2010

Zhu Fengzhi has the confident air of someone who knows she's in the right business. She's the general manager of Beijing Sun City, a "four-star" retirement home and elderly care centre on the northern outskirts of Beijing that's so popular there's a years-long waiting list to get in.

As China's demographic bulge enters retirement years, things are going so well that Ms. Zhu and her family are planning to open 10 more high-end homes around China in the years to come. "As the tide of aging comes in, one in five people in China will be elderly, so that's [more than]200 million people," she said with a smile. "We serve the top of that tower."

But Ms. Zhu's expansion plans depend, in part, on a reversal of current trends. As quickly as the country's economy has grown in recent years, it's aging even faster, likely making China the first country to grow old before it gets rich.

As enumerators fanned out across China this week to conduct the world's largest-ever census, among the data that will be most closely scrutinized will be figures revealing how fast China is aging, as well as the economic well-being of the country's seniors. The 45-question long form of the census contains several questions that will help the government calibrate a long-planned overhaul of the country's pension system.

Much of China's economic success over the past three decades has been due to the "demographic dividend" of having the vast majority of the population in their prime working years, with few dependents. Those numbers are set to reverse in the coming years when Ms. Zhu's "tide of aging" comes ashore, leaving more and more elderly dependent on fewer and fewer working-age Chinese.

By 2025, one in five Chinese who live in urban areas will be 60 or older. They'll also be living much longer than ever before - the average lifespan has almost doubled since 1950 to 72.8 years - just as the pinch of the controversial one-child policy that was adopted in 1980 kicks in. While the problem is less severe in rural areas, by some projections China will have a mind-boggling 437 million elderly by 2050, and just 1.6 working age adults for every person aged 60 and above, a precipitous drop from 7.7 in 1975.

China's overall population - estimated at 1.33 billion before census-takers began to fan out across the country this week for the world's largest-ever head count - is also expected to peak and start declining as early as 2015.

Other societies, including neighbours Japan and South Korea, have aging societies and falling birth rates. But China will face the unique challenge of being the first developing country to have to deal with the phenomenon.

A few can afford to retire in style at Sun City - which features a swimming pool and a man-made lake, as well as a temple, supermarket and private hospital on its 42-hectare grounds, and where rents run to 5,000 yuan (almost $800) a month. That's a fortune in a country where tens of millions currently face the prospect of retiring with no pension and a health-care system that leaves the patient to cover the bulk of the costs.

The same forces that unleashed China's rapid economic growth since the 1980s - the decision to introduce market reforms - also led to a gutting of the country's once-formidable social security network. Concern about who will take care of them in their old age is one of the main reasons Chinese prefer to save the bulk of their earnings.

Although national and local governments have started reinvesting in the national pension program in recent years, it's still a patchwork system that reaches about one in three of those Chinese who have reached retirement age.

"We need to speed up and improve our support system for the elderly," said Du Peng, director of the Institute of Gerontology at Beijing's Renmin University. He said the country's leadership had already signalled that better care for the elderly would be a focus of the country's next five-year economic plan, due to be made public early next year.

"We can get the number of pensioners from government reports, but we don't know if their pensions are enough for them to live on. Maybe they get 2,000 yuan a month, but need 4,000 a month for medical treatment," Prof. Du said. In fact, most of those receiving a public pension now receive between 60 and 300 yuan a month.

There are other signs the country isn't ready for the rapid changes that an aging society is about to bring. While the high-end market is well served by places such as Sun City, the China Daily newspaper recently reported that Beijing had 90,000 people waiting for only 30,000 nursing-home beds.

"I have no plans to retire. I have to work as long as I can," said Zhao Ruiting, a 54-year-old from Hebei province who sweeps leaves and collects garbage in Beijing's Temple of the Sun Park. He said he has no pension plan whatsoever.

And when he can no longer do his job? Mr. Zhao said he's thankful that he decided two decades ago to pay a 500-yuan fine and break the country's one-child policy. His two sons both have jobs in Beijing and know their parents are counting on them to support them in the future. "It's not fair but we will count on them to take care of us because we have no other way."

By the numbers

China and India are the twin economic stars of Asia, growing apace in economic might and population, but India has the advantage of youth.


Median age in China


Median age in India

Sources: National Bureau of Statistics of China; CIA World Factbook

Will China grow old …

Percentage of China's total population aged 60 and older

1990: 4.50 per cent

2000: 10.5 per cent

2009: 12.5 per cent

… before it grows rich?

GDP per capita at purchasing power parity

2007: $5,600 (U.S.)

2008: $6,100 (U.S.)

2009: $6,600 (U.S.)