COVID-19 spurs more — and younger — Chinese people to create wills

Society & Culture

Death is a taboo subject in China, which means that many Chinese people die intestate, leaving families to fight amongst themselves or to battle bureaucracy to sort out the assets left behind after the death of a loved one. But one organization dedicated to helping Chinese people write wills says the pandemic caused a spike of interest, even from people in their 20s.

will writing

While nobody likes to think about dying, it is inevitable, and it sometimes happens sooner than one might think. Last year, as COVID-19 ravaged China and claimed thousands of lives, that reality about death appeared to have hit close to home for many Chinese millennials — in fact, so close that they decided to put their end-of-life plans in order and draw up wills, an unusual move in a country where talking about death directly is still very much considered taboo.

The China Will Registration Center — a social welfare organization that aims at “popularizing the practice of writing wills among Chinese families” — says (in Chinese) that nearly 55,000 people used its service to create wills in 2020, up roughly 12% from 2019. The increase was particularly notable among adults born between 1980 and 1989, with the number of will writers among this group going from 73 in 2017 to 503 in 2020. 

After analyzing a total of 190,866 wills that it has stored since its establishment in 2013, the organization also found that there has been a steady uptick in wills made by Chinese millennials and even younger generations. By the end of 2020, the center had helped a total of 553 young Chinese people born after 1990 to navigate the process of estate planning. The youngest will creator in its database is 17 years old. 

The numbers are notable, especially given that the organization shuttered in-person operations for about two months in response to the pandemic. While its offices were closed, the center launched a mini-application within WeChat, which allowed users to leave notes about their end-of-life wishes and instructions. Although the over 70,000 comments it received online had no legal value, the center said the popularity of the service showed that the pandemic had made a lot of people appreciate life in a different way, especially young adults under 30, who made up over 60% of the people who used the application.

The impact of COVID-19 can also be found in other parts of the report. For example, it noted that since last August, a growing number of Chinese people living abroad have consulted the center about estate planning. Chén Kǎi 陈凯, the director of the center’s management committee, said (in Chinese) that the worsening situation of COVID-19 in foreign countries was their impetus for “arranging assets at home.” Meanwhile, from February to April, when the outbreak was at its peak in China, the center saw a dramatic rise in visits to its offices, about 21% of which were by healthcare workers.

Intrigued by the growing trend of young adults setting up wills, Research Center of the Coming Wave, a youth-focused digital magazine run by new media group 36Kr, interviewed (in Chinese) four will writers born after 1990. When asked why they started to prepare for their demise while in the prime of their lives, the answers varied widely, from eminently practical concerns, such as death anxiety caused by immense pressure at work, to social factors, such as wellness culture and the desire to “eliminate unnecessary trouble after death.”

Founded in 2013, the China Will Registration Center was originally committed to providing free will-writing services to people over age 60. Over the years, the charity program expanded and evolved to serve anyone beyond 18, the minimum age to create a will according to Chinese law. The organization now has 60 offices across the country, offering services to a wide range of clients, including the visually impaired and those who are illiterate.

While the new report suggests that the stigma and taboos around thinking about death and planning it have been reduced to some degree, most Chinese don’t establish wills in their twenties and thirties — or maybe ever. According to Chen, less than 5% of Chinese adults have a will, and their average age is 67.