More than six million officials spread out across China's teeming cities and its vast and sparsely populated plains yesterday for the start of the world's biggest census, aimed at accounting for every one of the country's growing 1.3 billion population.
The once-a-decade census is likely to reveal that almost half of the population now live in cities, a sign of the huge migration of workers from rural areas to its booming cities and coastal factories. The study – described by state media as the largest social mobilisation in peacetime – is intended to survey 400 million households in just 10 days.
The census, China's sixth, will for the first time count where people actually live and not where their residency certificate, or hukou, is legally registered. It is aimed at counting those millions who have secretly moved to the cities in search of work over the past decade and do not have resident status to remain there.
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. Over the next 20 years, another 400 million rural residents are expected to move to the cities, according to state media, adding to the estimated 200 million migrant workers who already work in cafés, factories and on building sites in urban areas.
There have been no published predictions on how much China's population has grown in the past decade, but if it grew by just 1 per cent a year, that would be an addition of more than 130 million people in just 10 years.
Emboldened by their growing prosperity, many Chinese people said they are uneasy at answering questions about education, family history, their employment situation, and resident status.
People are worried about their personal privacy being compromised, since there have been many cases of people having their contact details and bank account numbers stolen and sold on. "People are afraid to give out their personal information," online commentator Yao Wenhui wrote on sina.com.
Many people were also worried about problems of having more than one child, property, or income they have not declared. China has a one-child policy, and parents with children born in violation of the rule are required to pay a hefty fine. To encourage people to come forward, those penalties will be reduced for families if they register their extra children in the census.
The Chinese authorities also launched an information campaign to persuade the population to take part in the study.
"The census is the basis for making policies on education, medical care, employment and social welfare and aid," Communist Party mouthpiece the People's Daily said in an editorial.
Large and colourful posters have been liberally draped outside apartment blocks and in the subways. "Care about the census, care about our own life," reads one. "The census of the present day, help us plan for a beautiful future" and, to remind people that children also count, "Mum, don't forget that I'm also an interviewee on the census".
China's economic boom means people now work harder than ever. One young man surnamed Guo said he was happy enough to fill in the form, but his working habits meant he might be hard to track down. "I just don't know when I will encounter them," he said. "Every day, I go out to work before 9am and come back home after nine at night."
Li Zhiming, who trains census-takers in Guizhou province, told local media that the days of people waiting at home for the census-taker to arrive had long since passed. "Before, it was easy to get access to people's homes because they felt obliged to talk to you, but now, people are more reluctant to co-operate. Even showing your official identification doesn't work sometimes," he said.
A woman surnamed Zhuo said she's prepared to co-operate, as long as it suits her. "If they come at the door of my home, I will co-operate, why not? It's just a simple list to fill, not a big deal. If I find some questions I don't want to answer, I will not answer them," she said.
Census-takers are expected to visit universities, factories and construction sites where migrant workers are living in temporary housing.
In all, every census-taker will cover about 80 to 100 households, where about 90 per cent have to answer 18 questions about home-ownership, jobs and family members.
The other 10 per cent, randomly selected, take a 45-question survey that seeks further information on reasons for moving, unemployment and other personal details. Statistics will be calculated next month, with the key data to be released by the end of April 2011.
In for the count
* Who is being counted?
China's army of census takers aim to visit 400 million households in 10 days. The last census 10 years ago estimated that there were 1.295 billion people in the country. For the first time in 2010, foreigners will be asked to take part in the census. There are some 400,000 foreigners who have rights of residence in China. The study will also include Chinese from Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau who are living in mainland China. However, the questionnaire will be considerably shorter for them.
* Why do a census?
The Communist Party says that the census will be the basis for education, medical care, employment. That is unlikely to convince many Chinese to take part who have moved to cities but not registered to work there, or who face the threat of fines for breaching China's one-child policy.
* What else will it show?
The census is also likely to outline how fast the country is ageing. The government expects an average of eight million people to turn 60 each year by around 2015, 3.2 million more than the average in 2006-2010. China's shifting demographic will leave the country's younger generation supporting a much larger ageing population. Demographers worry China will probably become the first country in the world to age before it gets rich.
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