By Shen Hao
Translation by Amy Bodner
NANJING, China — According to Xinhua News Agency, by the end of 2017, China’s elderly population — those over the age of 60 — will reach over 4.1 billion people, accounting for 17.3 percent of the total Chinese population. By 2050, this elderly population is estimated to exceed one-third of the total population. As the average age increases, the elderly must share or compete with younger people for limited resources, which creates a generational gap that can breed misunderstanding between the young and the old. This tension is reflected in the public transport trends in China. China’s traditional culture, which values Confucian filial piety and deference to the elderly, has clashed with modern Chinese culture, which values personal freedoms.
On April 1, 2018, Netease News reported that an elderly gentleman in Beijing took bus No. 807 and sat on a young woman’s lap, even though there were empty seats on the bus. The young woman objected and asked the man to move. Instead, the elderly man criticized the young woman for being “unreasonable” and stated that he had the right to sit where he liked. The controversy quickly caught the attention of netizens, some who criticized the elderly man but others who criticized China’s inadequate governance of its aging population. Incidents like this one have forced Chinese society to reflect on how to solve generational tensions between the young and old that arise when resources are limited — even bus seats.
In a similar incident, Netease News broke another story on May 20, 2018 in which a young girl was criticized by an elderly man for refusing to give up her seat to a pregnant woman on the subway. A young man came to the defense of the child, which triggered a tirade of abuse from the old man and incited a heated argument. It is difficult to determine who held the moral high ground in this situation, as both sides claimed to be helping and sympathizing with the “disadvantaged.” The crux of the problem seems to lie in the question of who should compromise when both parties have rights to priority seating. In Chinese culture, giving up a seat on public transport has become associated with the traditional virtue of “respecting the old and cherishing the young.” In today’s society, respecting individual rights is also highly valued and many argue that the right to not give up a seat is a personal freedom that must be protected. Chinese society is still struggling to reach a consensus, and each incident must be judged on a case-by-case basis. We can appeal to a sense of morality, but first we must clarify and uphold the boundaries between individual rights.
艺术源于生活，电影中也对这一现象有所记录。2013年国内有一部影片“搜索”(Caught in the web)讲述了一个患癌女孩在公交车上未让座给老人，被乘客拍视频发到网上，引起了社会巨大谴责，最终女孩选择了自杀。这部影片反映了当今互联网时代之下，恶意宣传会让群众盲目卷入 “道德绑架”的情境之中，并且对当事人造成难以愈合的创伤。这一部以公交车事件作为主题的影片，如果年轻人和老年人同时处于弱势群体中，到底谁可以获得座位这个问题摆在了群众和媒体面前，也敦促我们做出客观且公道的选择。
As art imitates life, controversies surrounding seat-forfeiting culture have also been captured in Chinese film. The 2013 domestic film “Caught in the Web” chronicles the life of a cancer-stricken young woman who refuses to give up her seat to an elderly passenger on a bus. This interaction is recorded and posted online, which leads to vitriolic attacks against the young woman. Unable to bear the social backlash, she eventually decides to commit suicide. This film mirrors the modern internet era, where malicious or misrepresentative media can cause the public to blindly judge or persecute people, sometimes causing irreparable harm. If young and old people can both be classified as “disadvantaged,” and the question of who deserves the seat is put to the masses and media, the correct outcome is unclear. The film encourages us to make objective and fair choices.
The disputes associated with seat etiquette can be attributed both to a lack of resources and the particularities of traditional Chinese culture. It is worth remembering that China’s emphasis on the practice of traditional values was originally intended to maintain a harmonious social environment. When overdone, however, these values clash with the ideals of modernity. It is critical that Chinese citizens analyze this contradiction dialectically. We should not emphasize personal freedoms at the expense of traditional morality. At the same time, we need to be alert to the potential for excessive reliance on traditional values which harm individual rights and promote an atmosphere of differential treatment.
To solve this problem, we can look to Zhengzhou’s model of “female-only” cars on the subway. Perhaps we could introduce a similar program that includes an “elderly-only” car, which would guarantee a seat for those elderly people who truly need it. As the young generation in China, we should inherit traditional virtues while moving away from enforcing the morally problematic elements of seat-forfeiting culture.
Shen Hao is a first-year M.A. student at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center focusing on international politics.