World's biggest census begins as assurances of secrecy fail to appease sceptical citizens
Jasper Becker in Beijing
The world's biggest census starts today when five million census-takers and one million supervisors spread out in a 10-day effort to discover just how many Chinese there are on the mainland.
This is the most ambitious of the five such efforts undertaken since 1949 and a test of the trust between the Government and its subjects. The others were in 1953, 1964, 1982 and 1990.
Since the last census, doubts have grown about the accuracy of the count given the determination of many citizens and local officials to hide data that might alert higher authorities.
In an effort to discover how many 'black children' there are - those whose birth has never been registered - the State Statistical Bureau is promising to guarantee confidentiality. The secrets of those families who exceeded their birth quota will not be revealed to family planning bureaus. The Government also says the data will not be used to judge the achievements of local governments and various work units.
Yet some Beijingers are alarmed that census gatherers have already appeared at their door accompanied by local Public Security Bureau officials or members of local neighbourhood committees, which are in charge of monitoring their private lives.
The vast amount of data gathered will take two years to fully digest but a new figure for China's population will be available in February. The figures will include the results of censuses in Hong Kong and Macau, while a separate census is being undertaken in Taiwan.
About 60 per cent of the countries in the world are holding a census this year, but China's effort stands out not only in its scale but the amount of data being sought.
Each household will be asked 23 questions, which for the first time will allow a detailed picture to be drawn up not only of families but also their living conditions, such as the type and quality of their housing.
Individuals will not only be asked to answer questions about education level, ethnicity and employment but also to provide information to help the state discover the size and whereabouts of the 'floating population'. This is thought to have grown rapidly since the 1990 census but estimates vary enormously. Between 20 million to 100 million are thought to be absent from official statistics, given a 'floating population' variously put at 25 million to 125 million.
Another focus will be on women between 15 and 65 to help build a detailed picture of marriage and childbirth.
In addition to the five million census-takers, each responsible for up to 300 people, there will be a million co-ordinators and inspectors. These are not professionals but local cadres, teachers, workers and others recruited and given seven days' training.
The forms will then be fed into a computer rather than processed manually as in the past. To check the validity of the data, spot checks will be carried out against information provided by neighbourhood committees.
A comprehensive effort will also be made to register the homeless, who will be questioned and then given cards to keep so they are not counted for a second time.
As China becomes a more mobile nation, the gathering of data has become increasingly complicated, especially with so many households.
The Beijing Youth Daily also noted that many citizens are reluctant to co-operate with the census and don't trust the census-takers.
'Citizens cannot distinguish between a government census and commercial censuses, and they are fed up with data gathering . . . they have stronger notions of privacy,' it reported.
A further question may hang over the data when it is released. The Communist Party has declared that the population is about 1.25 billion and will not exceed 1.3 billion by the end of 2000. If the count reveals a picture very different from expectations, there is no guarantee that the real figures will be released to the public.