Painting true portrait of a country

By Douglas Norris (China Daily)
Updated: 2010-11-10 07:54
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Six million census takers have fanned out across China to conduct the country's sixth national census, the world's largest. For the first time, foreigners who live and work in China, as well as the populations of Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan, will be included in the count. The last census, conducted in 2000, reported a total population of 1.3 billion people.

Other countries such as the United States have also conducted a census this year, while Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia will conduct their next census in 2011. Since China continues its rise as a world power, it is not surprising that its census has attracted media attention around the world. In Canada, home to a significant number of residents who are of Chinese descent or were born in China, the national media have published a series of articles on China's latest census initiative.

A major change in China's current census is that, for the first time, the population will be counted on the basis of where people live rather than on their hukou (house registration), or registration, status. The census will collect information on the size, geographic location and socioeconomic characteristics of China's population, including their education, family history, employment and resident status.

Although there are other national surveys and local sources of data on the Chinese population, the census is unique in that it provides complete and comparable data for all parts of China, and the data will be available at the local neighborhood, or community, level.

At a time of rapid economic growth and social change, the census will provide a much needed, up-to-date portrait of China's diverse population and how it is changing. An accurate and complete count will provide a benchmark for measuring change over time using future censuses.

Census information is very useful to all segments of a society. First and foremost, it provides citizens with a portrait of their country and how it is evolving during a time of rapid social and economic change. Data will be useful to the national, regional and local governments as they plan for new health and social service programs and infrastructure projects or modify existing ones.

For example, census information provides detailed data on the size and location of the child population to help determine the need for new schools and other educational facilities.

Data also will be available on the rapidly aging Chinese population to support the development of senior services for this population group. Updated information on workers will support its rapid economic expansion.

National and international businesses, too, will be eager to study the Chinese census data. These companies need to understand the size, geographical location and socio-demographic make-up of the Chinese population in order to decide where to locate facilities and how to deliver goods and services.

Finally, census data can be used as an educational tool, allowing students to compare their local communities with others in their country and with other parts of the world.

Although census data are very useful for a modern society, all countries, including China, face major challenges when conducting a modern-day census. In addition to the logistical planning for what in many countries is their largest peacetime mobilization of a temporary workforce, a successful census depends on the cooperation of every household to provide complete and accurate information.

One challenge is simply to find people at home who will provide the required information. This may be a particular challenge in large Chinese urban areas where, in some cases, citizens may be reluctant to provide certain information for fear it might be used against them.

China's census is also complicated because of the presence of migrant workers - those tens of millions of undocumented workers who have left the countryside for jobs in urban areas and now live on the outskirts of large cities. This information is very sensitive because of the traditional hukou system and the implications it has for residents' entitlement to services.

China's family planning policy might be another point of concern for those families reporting more than one child. Although these issues are very sensitive from a respondent's point of view, it's crucial to obtain an accurate count of the migrant population and number of children for future planning purposes.

As with any countries' census efforts, China's statistical agency and government must stress that the census information will be used at an aggregate level for research purposes only. They have to ensure that personal information collected in the census will not be used at the individual level to track or question an individual's circumstances.

The first results from the Chinese census are expected in April 2011. There is no doubt that the new data on China's population will be of interest to all parts of the world. Along with the business community and my fellow demographic researchers, I eagerly await the portrait of China that will emerge from this extraordinary undertaking.

The author is senior vice-president and chief demographer of Environics Analytics, Toronto, Canada.