BEIJING — CHINA began the world's biggest census on Sunday, confronting vast geographic, logistical, and political obstacles in tallying its more than 1.1 billion people. Traveling by foot, bicycle, yak, and horse, nearly 7 million census takers went door to door and hut to hut nationwide, collecting data from China's 200 million households.
In Tibet and parts of the country's rugged northwest, the count began a month early to give nomads trained as census takers time to complete their record gathering by the July 10 deadline, officials say.
``[Tibetan] herdsmen in some pastoral areas will be registered for the first time,'' said Zhang Weihua, an official in charge of the census in Tibet.
The census, China's fourth since the Communist Party took power in 1949, will cost an estimated $.21 per Chinese resident, or about $230 million.
A sample of the results will be published next May. But it will take until June 1992 to finish processing the data with more than 3,400 large computers, says Huang Hui, director of the computer center of the State Statistics Bureau. By that time, China will have another 22 million babies.
Aside from the logistical challenge, China's Orwellian regime faces a public relations problem: fear. Many Chinese are hesitant to complete the census forms honestly - or at all - out of fear of revealing aspects of their lives that could incur punishment by the government.
``There are some masses who have worries,'' says Wei Zhiming, a Beijing municipal census official. ``We use propaganda to help them understand,'' Mr. Wei said at a census station in Beijing's Western District on Sunday.
One of the most sensitive issues involves the fate of China's growing population of ``black'' children - children born outside of the government's one-child policy who were never officially registered by their parents.
Census takers want to account for such children, who number more than 1 million, according to official estimates. But parents, who under existing regulations should pay stiff fines for additional children, seek to hide their illegitimate offspring.
China's army of statisticians has also targeted the migrant, or ``floating,'' population. Migration has surged over the past decade, as peasants left idle by market-oriented rural reforms quit the fields in pursuit of more lucrative city jobs. Official estimates of the migrant force range from 20 million to 80 million.
Officials in Beijing, Guangzhou, and other cities have evicted hundreds of thousands of migrants in the past two years. They blame peasant influxes for unemployment and overcrowding.
Census takers tracking migrants are canvassing railway stations, docks, and bus depots, and looking under bridges and in shacks, official reports say.
But migrants who lack temporary ``hu kou,'' or residence permits that allow them to work legally in cities, may try to evade the census for fear that they will be forced to return home.
Some urban residents also worry that accurate census reporting could lead the government to confiscate extra housing that they rent but do not inhabit, officials say. Chinese officials in crowded cities often set aside hard-to-get allotments of housing for their children.
In Beijing's Two Dragon Lane neighborhood, for example, census taker Huang Hui said that 135 of the 831 households to be surveyed were listed as ``difficult to contact,'' meaning that ``basically, they are empty.''
To ease popular suspicion, officials have stressed that the census will not be used to ``tackle detailed problems'' and pledged that all information gathered will remain confidential, with codes used instead of citizens' names.
At the same time, the government is using its pervasive social network to persuade reluctant citizens to cooperate.
China's grass-roots neighborhood and village committees, which keep tabs on everything from marital squabbles to birth control, are in charge of ``mobilizing the masses'' to join the count.
In cities and towns across the country, public address systems, billboards, and banners hung on shop fronts and overpasses reminded passersby of their ``duty to support the census.''
All citizens, including those living overseas and those in jail, are to be counted. The People's Liberation Army and police forces will tally their members separately, officials say.
The census, the first since 1982, will compile data on the age, sex, educational level, ethnicity, employment, and distribution of the population. It ``will be of great significance for planning the people's life in all fields,'' said State Councilor Li Tieying, who is in charge of the census.
China, which first began calculating its population and land area some 4,000 years ago, developed a meticulous household registration system during the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD).