China goes door-to-door for world's biggest census

Updated:Mon, Nov 1, 2010 21:11 PM   By Bernd Chang

Population Census,Migrant Workers

A census taker checks information with villagers in a field in Meishan city, Southeast China’s Sichuan province, Nov 1, 2010. [Photo/Asianewsphoto]

China on Monday began its sixth population census, and the first in a decade, which will for the first time attempt to map the country's ever-increasing population of migrant workers.


BEIJING, November 1st,2010 -- China kicked off a once-a-decade census Monday, a whirlwind 10-day head count that sees 6 million census takers scrutinize apartment blocks, scour migrant areas and scan rural villages to document massive demographic changes in the world's most populous country.

And they aim to count every person.

The 2000 tally put China's official population at 1.295 billion people, but missed migrant workers living in cities for less than six months. In the 10 years since, there has been an extensive shift in the population base as tens of millions of migrant workers have poured into urban areas looking for work.

The 2010 census is expected not only to better document the rural-to-urban migration but also to shed new light on a number of impending demographic shifts, including a rapid fall in the number of young people, a sharp growth in the number of elderly people and a decline in the size of the work force.

It is the sixth time China has carried out a national census, but the first time it will count people where they live and not where their resident certificate, or hukou, is legally registered. The change will better track the demographic changes and find the true size of China's giant cities, the populations of which up to now have been only estimates.

Scholars say this old approach presented a skewed picture of China's urbanisation, stating the rural population as being as high as 800 million. This census, however, will provide the most accurate assessment yet of the migrant population — estimates from scholars range from 100 million to more than 225 million migrant workers.

This assessment will allow the government to better plan how it can expand social services for migrant workers in cities. In recent years there have been growing calls to reform the hukou system, which denies migrant workers access to healthcare, education and social benefits in cities. The restrictions have been cited as a major factor behind rising income inequalities, which grew to the widest ever in the People's Republic's six-decade history last year. An urban resident earns 3.3 times more than a rural-registered resident.

But mapping China's changing demographics is not going to be an easy task for the 6.5 million census-takers, with rising privacy concerns.

In Guangzhou, where the census began early on account of the Asian Games that will begin next month, census takers found many residents unwilling to answer questions. Fear among families who have not adhered to family planning rules is another reason behind the privacy fears.

Chinese Vice-Premier Li Keqiang last week attempted to assuage fears that the information would be used by law enforcement departments, stressing that the information would be kept confidential by the census authorities.

But it remained unclear whether his appeal would suffice. “People no longer feel they should be managed,” Zhang Yi, a researcher for the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told the China Daily. “Instead, they believe they should be served by the government. That is why they say no to census takers before they are convinced their privacy is protected.”

In Beijing, Ms. Tang from Anhui, who makes a living cleaning apartments, said she would cooperate. “Chinese people don't like answering questions about their own lives,” she said. “But I have nothing to hide.”

“It is harder to gather accurate information this time than the previous five national censuses,” Xing Zhihong, the deputy head of the Beijing census effort, told China Daily, “Not all residents are willing to reveal personal information.”

In true Chinese fashion, banners urging cooperation with census takers — in green rather than the traditional red — have been strung across streets for weeks. Whether the efforts will produce a more accurate count, however, is unclear. In a recent online poll conducted by the Internet portal, roughly a third of respondents said they were wary of cooperating with census takers.

This census brings another landmark change in the head count. For the first time, the government is counting the rising number of foreigners in the nation, albeit via a smaller eight-question survey.

The results of the census are expected to be released in April.


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