China census challenged by citizens' rising sense of privacy

China's once-a-decade census is complicated by a new reluctance to divulge information or expose violations of the one-child policy. A booming migrant population also poses problems.

Carlos Barria/Reuters
People in the financial district of Shanghai pass by a billboard of a Chinese family on Nov. 1. China launched a once-in-a-decade census on Monday in an exercise that will form a basis for policymaking in the world's most populous country, but is likely to face resistance from residents wary of government officials.

Six million census takers fanned out across China on Monday, launching a once-in-a-decade effort to count the world’s largest population and track its changes.

The biggest challenge of the 10-day campaign, say officials involved in the census, will be to pin down the real number of migrant workers. Key players in China’s economic boom over the past three decades, they number more than 200 million, according to some estimates.

The authorities are also making a special effort to get a more accurate picture of how many children China has. Parents who have violated the government’s one-child policy have been promised reduced fines if they declare their extra children to census takers.
More generally, says Feng Nailin, deputy head of the census project, census takers will have to deal with Chinese citizens’ rising sense of privacy and a reluctance to tell the government their personal details.

Precensus surveys, Mr. Feng told reporters last month, revealed “more refusals to cooperate with the census.”

In a bid to overcome such reticence, this year’s census asks no questions about income. And deputy premier Li Keqiang went on television last Thursday with a plea for citizens to give full and accurate information and a warning to enumerators to keep personal information confidential.
In Er He Zhuang, 30 miles southwest of Beijing, census takers gave Song Fu a slip of paper before they began asking him 30 minutes’ worth of questions about him and his family and his house. The note pledged not to reveal any of his answers to anyone except the census authorities.

In this small village, such assurances are unlikely to be necessary. All the 400 inhabitants are familiar with one another. “Everyone knows us, so people will cooperate,” says Hui Yan, a village official who took Mr. Song’s details.
This is less true of enumerators in cities where migrants are less well integrated, often living on construction sites or in basements, or crammed into makeshift dormitories. “The floating population is growing fast and so is the rhythm of migration,” said Feng last month. “That makes it hard to include them in a census.”

For the first time, migrants will be counted where they live, not where their residence certificate is registered for social services. That will give the authorities a more accurate picture of which rural areas migrants have come from and how far they have swelled the cities’ populations without being officially noticed.

China’s population was 1.27 billion at the last census in 2000. It is expected to top 1.3 billion this time.

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