There are a lot of people in China, a helluva lot. But at the moment the powers-that-be are not absolutely sure just how many there are, nor are they sure where they all are.
In China every citizen is registered at birth and given a ‘hukou’ which determines where they live. This is an extremely important document which you need in order to have access to schools, medical care, property purchase, pension etc., and you have to produce it if you wish to get married.
As the country has changed and opened up, the population has become extremely fluid with millions of people moving from the countryside to the cities in order to get better paid jobs. From the point of view of social planning for housing, schools, hospitals etc it is essential that the government knows where people actually live rather than where they were originally registered as living according to their ‘hukou’.
So, on the 1st November 6.5 million specially trained enumerators fanned out across the nation to spend ten days counting the people in China’s sixth census since the founding of the People’s Republic back in 1949.
The very first census was held in 1953 and the population was logged as 582 million, but by the fifth census in 2000 the population had grown to 1.3 billion and rising, despite the much criticised ‘one child’ policy (more on that anon..).
For several months green banners have been draped all over the cities and the countryside, exhorting the population to comply with the census, and there have been television and radio programmes as well as articles in the press explaining how important it is for future planning that everyone participates.
Conducting a census on this scale is a mighty undertaking, and this time several things will be different. Every one of the estimated 400 million households in the land will have to fill in a census form which asks about members of the household, their ages, genders, literacy, education, and where they live. There are ten questions on the regular form, but one in ten households will have to fill in a longer, more detailed, 45 question form. None of the forms have questions about income or religion which are considered private matters.
Because people filling in the form will not be fined for living somewhere other than the place stipulated on their ‘hukou’ it is hoped that the estimated 160 million migrants will co-operate so a more accurate picture of the demographics can be obtained.
Likewise, families who have had children they haven’t registered will be offered the opportunity to regularise the situation and instead of a hefty fine will have a much reduced penalty which can be paid off in instalments.
We ‘laowei’ living in China are also included in the census for the first time, but with a mere eight question form. On Saturday AMM and I sat down to fill it in, writing ourselves into a little bit of Chinese statistical history.