Subscriber OnlyAsia-Pacific

Tables turned in China as children keep an eye on their parents

Beijing Letter: Denis Staunton discovers an unsuspected consequence of China’s one-child policy

The rainstorms have gone from Beijing but the air is still hot and humid, so that moving around in the city feels like walking through a steam bath. By 10am on Thursday, a couple of exhausted food delivery drivers were already stretched out on a bench across the road while a street sweeper swung her giant broom in the gentlest adagio.

The news was still full of stories about surviving the floods that followed Tropical Storm Doksuri, which last Saturday brought the heaviest rainfall Beijing has seen in a single day in at least 140 years. The rain was still hard and relentless on Monday evening when my friend Lei and I pushed through a heavy, plastic curtain into our favourite restaurant around the corner.

The atmosphere inside was giddy with a group of eight men, slightly stewed, at a round table next to us roaring with joy as they tipped back the baiju, tottering out in twos and threes for a smoke every now and then. As Lei and I shared dishes of braised beef, scrambled eggs and tomato, pak choi and mushrooms and fried chicken dipped in ground spices, we talked about the rain.

“I told my parents to stay at home,” he said.


He had told me about his parents, both retired but still in their mid-60s and living about 50km outside Beijing, when we first met a few months ago. His mother still works part-time from home while his father goes out most mornings to meet his friends from a singing group.

I said that sounded pretty good but Lei said his father came home every day complaining loudly to himself about everyone he met and everything that happened. I asked him how he knew.

“I have a camera there,” he said.

The camera has sound as well as vision and Lei can check in on his parents through an app on his phone any time he chooses. I asked him how they felt about the arrangement.

“They’re used to it. If they want to talk about me they unplug it,” he said.

For Lei, the camera was a practical measure that put his mind at ease; he compared it to a burglar alarm or a medical alert button. It was like a BabyCam, he said, but for parents.

A few days later I told another friend, who, like Lei, is the only child of retired parents, about the SeniorCam. I told him I had never heard anything like it. “I have one of those at my parents’ place. Everyone has one,” he said.

His version, which sits on top of the television, not only allows him to see and hear his parents, who are in their 80s, but to speak to them too. “If I hear them saying something bad about me, I say through the camera ‘hey, why are you talking like that?’'” he said.

He told me he had a spare camera if I wanted it, suggesting that it was useful to check in on home while away. I said no thanks but I did want to see one of the cameras, so we went to the nearest shopping mall for a look.

Squat and bulbous like a tiny, black and white Tellytubby, a model that sees, hears and allows the viewer to speak costs the equivalent of €25. For €50 you can get the latest, most sophisticated version, which can scan 360 degrees, see in the dark, identify pets and spot human intruders and it includes facial recognition.

It also records an entire day’s footage for those who don’t want to miss a moment of their parents’ life and times.

As we looked at the cameras, I told my friend that I had until then thought of China’s now abolished one-child policy mostly in terms of the emotional burden it places on the children of ageing parents. Now I saw that the parents had to put up with a lot too.

He told me it was no big deal, that he seldom looked at the camera and he believed most people who installed them forgot about them after a while, as did their parents. He has an understanding with his mother that she calls or texts him every other day to let him know they are well and he will only look at the camera if he hasn’t heard from her.

“If they don’t want me to know what they’re up to they go into another room. And where they are, the Internet doesn’t work half the time anyway,” he said.