Tuesday, November 02, 2010

On the problems of China's census

Writing for the Globe and Mail, Mark Mackinnon has been writing a series of articles about the problems that the Chinese government is facing in this year's census. The government is trying hard, but the serious consequences that may face people who aren't doing what they should--living in places where they lack the registration, but especially having too many children--will limit the census' accuracy.

More than six million people – a number almost three times the size of the People’s Liberation Army, and larger than the population of Denmark – will on Monday fan out across this country’s 31 provinces to begin China’s first national census in a decade. Though a population survey carried out at the end of last year estimated the population of the People’s Republic of China at 1.334 billion, there are far too many unknowns for that number to be considered definitive. Some demographers believe the real number of Chinese may be closer to 1.5 billion.

There are several reasons China’s government has a poor handle on the number of people it rules, but the biggest one is that the country is in the midst of the world’s biggest-ever peacetime migration. Over the past three decades, hundreds of millions of rural Chinese have flocked to the cities in search of work and better lives. Estimates of the number of migrant workers and their families range from 130 million to more than 200 million. To find the real number will mean going door-to-door in villages such as Daxing, and asking those who live here to tell the truth, even when it could have uncertain consequences.

“The number of people living here changes all the time,” said Xu Yingyun, who is raising her six-year-old grandson in two small rooms the family rents at the end of one of Daxing’s many alleys. She said the family had no idea who their neighbours currently are, since the other residents frequently change, with many staying only as long as their latest job lasts before moving on to another district or city.

The numbers are imprecise because China’s hukou household registration system restricts where people can live and work, forcing migrants to live in the shadows of places such as Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. An unknown number – believed to be in the millions – have had second or third children in violation of the country’s once-child population control laws. While their parents are registered in the wrong place, the children often aren’t registered at all, leaving them without the necessary documentation to even attend school.

Hoping to remove the asterisk that has long accompanied their country’s population counts, China’s government plans to marry a physical head count with their own population registry for the first time, with the in-person count taking precedence wherever there is a conflict. To encourage migrants to be honest about how and where they live, the government has mixed a massive propaganda campaign – green banners around the country urge citizens to “co-operate fully to reconcile household and population records” – with a promise of reduced fines for those who admit hukou violations or reveal their extra children to the census-takers.

The wastage of potential human capital caused by the need of some Chinese parents to hide their unauthorized children, along with the rapid aging of China's population that has attracted considerable concern--as with Shanghai's recorded ultra-low fertility--as observers note China's pool of mobile rural migrants drying up, might lead to a change in China's one-child policy. Might.

In the southern city of Guangzhou, an industrial hub that’s a magnet for migrant workers from the poor countryside, police had to set up special processing centres to deal with the number of parents who came forward with unregistered children in the weeks before the Nov. 1 start of the census.

According to local media reports, some of those registered for the first time were already teenagers, hinting at the lengths some families have gone to in order to keep secret their decision to break the one-child rule. (The last census, in 2000, revealed a surprisingly low fertility rate of 1.22 in urban areas – lower than that in even neighbouring Japan – but demographers believe that figure was distorted by three million unreported births.) The government says part of the motivation for reducing the penalty is to get an accurate grasp of the number of children living among the tens of millions of migrant labourers who exist on the fringes of swelling cities such as Beijing, Guangzhou and Shanghai.

“We want to provide an education to these kids, but in many cases [with migrant workers] we don’t know how many children there are. We need a better estimate of the number and distribution of these kids,” said Duan Chengrong, director of the population studies centre at Beijing’s Renmin University and one of those who helped design the census questions.

Prof. Duan estimated that as many as 4 per cent of elementary and middle school-aged children were not receiving any education at all – a huge number in a country the size of China. “That’s a problem, not just for the children and their families, but also for the cities and the country.”

Some of those with unregistered second children doubt that China will be able to get a completely accurate picture of their population so long as those who violate the population control policies face penalties of any kind.

“Do you think it’s possible for the enumerators to knock on every door of every household?” asked He Kecheng, the owner of a small audio-visual supplies company in Beijing who with his wife has also refused to pay the fine for having a second child, their son Yiran, in early 2009.

The human and economic costs of China's one-child policy aside, the vagueness underlying official statistics certainly makes them questionable--indicative, perhaps, more than perfectly descriptive.

No comments: