Evasive citizens throw spanner in works

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 29 March, 2001, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 29 March, 2001, 12:00am

Doubts about the accuracy of the census will not be allayed by bold assertions that it was as accurate as those undertaken in North America.

Many will continue to suspect the results have been tampered with to meet official targets.

The results imply that the state can mandate how many children are born each year through targets enforced by draconian measures, although it has always failed to set the output of cabbages or TV sets.

Last year's census should have been easier. It was the first fully computerised undertaking, thus making the compilation and processing quicker and more reliable.

On the other hand, the population is far more mobile than it used to be and can more easily evade census-takers.

Some population experts had assumed that the population had hit 1.3 billion by the end of last year, far ahead of the revised target of 1.25 billion. During the census, the media reported that millions of people were avoiding the counters.

Previous censuses were little more than a check on existing records. This time it was evident that these registers are no longer reliable. Many people listed on them could not be found this time around.

The population of Shanxi came in at two million below the official estimate of 36 million and more deaths were registered than the data suggested were probable.

Across the country, it looks as if up to 200 million were not counted.

These range from migrant workers to illegal migrants in cities and those hiding unregistered and illegal children.

Despite promises that the information in the census would not be used to punish people - such as those who violated the Government's birth-control policy - few people believed it. The Government tried to prevent reports of such punishments being aired. But in one case, unregistered children of 18 families in Fujian were seized after their existence was revealed.

Many other kinds of people have good reason to keep their whereabouts or activities secret, if only to evade taxes.

Evidence from the Yangtze River floods in 1996 and 1998 showed that local registers undercounted the rural population in flooded counties by as much as 15 per cent.

In November, the public's passive lack of co-operation forced census organisers to extend the process by more than a week. Later, provincial offices had to adjust the real count to compensate for those missing from the census but registered with the police.

The extent to which under-reporting required educated guesswork on the part of the government census group is not known and therefore casts a long shadow of doubt over the results.

Admitting that it had been impossible to reach an accurate headcount would have been politically impossible. The final results may be the best estimate that can be achieved.

But the questions about their accuracy takes the shine off China's claims that it has outperformed its rival India, whose population increases by about 16 million a year.

India revealed this week that its population had topped the one-billion mark after adding 181 million over the 10 years to 2001.