x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

1.3bn people last year, now China counts again

China begins its first census for 10 years amid speculation the mammoth undertaking could bring changes to the one-child policy.

BEIJING // China yesterday began its first census for 10 years amid speculation that the mammoth undertaking could lead to changes to the controversial one-child policy.

Over 10 days, a six-million strong army of data collectors will go door to door to survey 400 million households in the world's most populous nation. Urban areas are likely to be revealed as being home to close to half the total population, which wasestimated last year at 1.33 billion.

Beijing's population last time was recorded as 13.8 million; this census is likely to give a figure closer to 20 million.

By mobilising a legion of counters larger than the populations of Oman and Kuwait put together, authorities hope to shed light on China's urban-rural divide, and the ratios of males to females and young to old.

Unlike the last census in 2000, this year's project will record people according to where they actually live, in order to provide a more accurate picture of the size of China's cities.

The previous five censuses counted people according to where they were officially registered as living. But as more people migrated from the countryside to cities in recent decades, census results were increasingly distorted. China is thought to have more than 200 million migrants who have flocked to the cities for work.

Chinese officials admit that many people may be reluctant to share personal information, including migrant workers living away from the area they are registered, and families with unregistered children born outside the one-child policy.

A key statistic for the survey will be the relative number of males and females, shedding light on ongoing concerns that China's one-child policy is skewing the gender balance.

According to Kam Ping Kwong, an associate professor in the department of applied social studies at the City University of Hong Kong, the statistics on the numbers of young and old will also be revealing.

The one-child rule means China risks having too few working-age people to support its elderly, and Mr Kwong, who has written extensively on China's ageing society, suggested that the census data could result in policy changes.

"The mainland government needs to review the one-child policy and how they can handle the support and care for the old population in the coming century," he said. "We have fewer and fewer children, and more and more older people. The census can give us more concrete data about how we can review the existing policy. This is a pressing issue." 

The Chinese government has already started measures that could tackle the problem by reducing financial penalties on families registering additional children, but there are still thought to be millions of unregistered children born in defiance of the policy.

Parents of such youngsters may be reluctant to inform census-takers of their existence, although smaller fines will be levied on those registering children during the census. Ninety per cent of households will have to answer 18 questions on subjects ranging from ethnicity to education. 

The remaining 10 per cent will be quizzed more thoroughly, with 45 questions on areas such as employment and housing circumstances. In another first this year, foreign residents are included in the census, although they only have to answer eight questions. 

Once the main census collection finishes on November 10, follow-up visits will be made to one household in every 10,000 until the end of the month. Local media reports have indicated thatcensus takers could call the police if householders refuse to co-operate.

Census data is due to be released in April of next year. 

dbardsley@thenational.ae 

* With additional reporting by Reuters, the Associated Press and Agence France-Presse