BEIJING -- China is preparing to send students to Japan to learn how the country handles nursing care for the elderly as its own population ages rapidly.
In early November, 100 students aged around 20 gathered at a hotel in Jinan, about 400 km south of Beijing, for a ceremony marking the opening of a course at the Shandong Institute of Commerce and Technology to train nursing-care professionals in Japan.
Senior provincial and city officials stood onstage with Chai Yongguang, representative director of the Japan-China Medical and Welfare Association, who told attendees that China's graying population weighs heavily on the minds of those in government. By 2025, the share of people aged 60 or older will rise to 34.8% of the population, according to Chai. "I hope you will study hard in Japan and accumulate international experiences," Chai said.
The government hopes the trainees will gain insights from working in Japan, which has developed various programs to deal with its aging society, and return home to become leaders in China's nursing-care industry.
Improving China's care for the elderly is a key element of President Xi Jinping's pledge to raise living standards. Beijing wants to draw on Japan's experience in the field.
To address the challenge, the government began offering nursing-care insurance on a trial basis in Shanghai and other cities in 2016. Demand for caregivers with advanced professional skills continues to rise.
Young Chinese people will support Japan's nursing-care sector, which is facing a severe labor shortage, learn skills and then lead nursing-care services in China," Chai said of the Shandong institute's program. "It's a win-win relationship." Similar classes are being set up in China's northeastern Liaoning Province and elsewhere across the country.
China hopes to take advantage of a new visa category created by Japan for "specified skilled workers" to help make up for a shortfall of workers in its nursing-care industry. Japan plans to accept up to 60,000 skilled foreign workers for five-year stints to help meet its elderly care needs.
Although the Philippines and Indonesia have dispatched nursing-care workers to Japan for years, the requirement to learn kanji characters is a stumbling block for workers hoping to qualify for the new visa. "Chinese should be able to learn Japanese kanji faster," said an official at the institute.
The school offers a three-year program that teaches students Japanese language and basic nursing-care skills. The tuition is about 5,000 yuan ($708) per year.
There is a big push from senior policymakers in China to train more caregivers. Speaking to a gathering of entrepreneurs in Beijing on Nov. 12, Premier Li Keqiang stressed the need to "greatly advance nursing-care services for elderly citizens," state news agency Xinhua reported.
China's Central Financial and Economic Affairs Commission, headed by Xi, announced on April 23 that more people, goods and capital should go to nursing care for the elderly to deal with the pressing problem. Xi met Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in Osaka in June, and the two leaders agreed to foster cooperation in nursing care.
The Chinese government is working to improve nursing care to meet goals set by Xi as part of the "Two Centenaries." One is to achieve a "moderately prosperous society" by 2021, when the Communist Party will mark its 100th anniversary. The other is to create a "strong and modern socialist country" by the centenary of the founding of the People's Republic of China in 2049.
Failings in China's nursing care for the elderly carry political risks in the form of discontent from older citizens and a heavier burden on working people. On the other hand, improving the system will boost support for the government.
"As nursing-care facilities in China are mainly aimed at wealthy people, many of them are like luxury hotels," said a person with knowledge of the industry. "Disparities are appearing in care services."
One facility in Langfang, south of Beijing, with its marble-clad lobby, would not look out of place among the high-end hotels of the capital. It has advanced physical therapy equipment and doctors and nurses on duty around the clock.
Amenities include a swimming pool, gym and tai chi room in the basement. Residents can learn calligraphy, violin, karaoke, piano and dance on the third floor.
Residents' private rooms are similar to condominiums in Japan. "This is a very comfortable place to live in. There probably aren't many places like this, even in Japan," said a woman in her 70s from Beijing who moved into the facility with her husband this year.
But with rent and fees of around 7,000 yuan a month, few Chinese can afford such senior care. Many of the residents of Langfang facility are retired government officials or university professors with good pensions. One said he used to teach at Tsinghua University.
Although the facility and others like it offer impressive services, they are aimed at the wealthy and fall far short of the needs of a population of 1.4 billion that is rapidly growing older.