And Finally

Head count

Latest census may bring policy change

Head count

They’ll be counted now

The first Chinese census was carried out quite a while ago, in 2 AD. The Han Dynasty evidently did a pretty thorough job. Apparently the population was calculated to a fairly specific total of 57,671,400.

On Wednesday more than six million census staff finally finished the latest tally, which is expected to come in at well over 1.3 billion.

This census was radically different from the last, taken in 2000, as the new methodology counts people where they actually live rather than where they’re officially registered as residing.

That matters in China much more than in most countries. Historically, the country’s population has been split into two groups: those allowed to live in the cities (with an urban ‘hukou’) and those restricted to the countryside.

In the previous census migrant workers (those living and working in city factories and estimated at over 200 million people) were ignored (or rather, were not counted as city dwellers).

With the new approach, China’s leaders are hoping to get a true idea of how many migrant workers are actually living in the cities.

“The biggest difficulty will be to register the migrant population,” admits Feng Nailin, the project’s deputy head, acknowledging that the migrants are harder to find (since the government doesn’t have their addresses).

That’s not the only data officials are eager to gather. The size of China’s aging generation, the gender imbalance and the latest birth rates are all serious talking points for population experts. The results won’t be out until the end of April, but observers have already begun to suggest the census data may not be comprehensive. That’s because China’s top politicians have had a very hard time trying to persuade a reluctant population to participate. “Many people are refusing to cooperate,” said Feng, “because the pace of life is faster now and the awareness of privacy is increasing.”

There are other reasons why some will have tried to avoid the census-takers. The one child policy can still lead to hefty fines for offenders, for instance. To ease those fears Beijing’s policymakers have called for reduced penalties for the census period. Vice-Premier Li Keqiang has also promised that all data collected will be kept strictly confidential.

This census matters more than previous ones – that’s because an important outcome could be a policy decision on whether to grant migrant workers an urban hukou.

As WiC explained in issue 39, the hukou offers the holder the right to use local welfare services (for example, to send your child to the nearby school). Without it, migrants complain of being treated like second class citizens in the cities in which they live and work.

Given the system’s unfairness, the media has lobbied for its reform. Come the publication of results in April, the census could prove a timely opportunity to do so…

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