Sunday 25 Sep 2022 | 23:43 | SYDNEY
Sunday 25 Sep 2022 | 23:43 | SYDNEY

Harmoniously carrying out census obligations

3 November 2010 12:27

Catherine Chan is an environmental lawyer and journalist in Beijing.

This morning I received a knock on my door. Wearing (among other things) furry ankle boots and bright smiles, two young women with identification badges wielded a pen in my direction and asked me to answer ten-or-so questions in Mandarin about my age, gender, and reasons for being in Beijing.

Officials have been doing their best to get the census message to the masses. This has extended to the Beijing Municipal Council disturbing the sanctity of my Sunday morning sleep-in by sending a text message at the ungodly hour of 6.30am, reminding me to do my duty and contribute to a harmonious society by cooperating in the survey.

Prior to this, my only other experience with the Great Census of China was appreciating how much better the census slogans read in Chinese than English. 'The census is for the nation and each citizen', reads one. 'To build a harmonious society, participate in the census. People are the priority in a census' says another.

The green sign reads, 'Every citizen is obliged to make truthful declarations in the census.' (Photo by the author)

For local Beijingers, the census is a more than a novelty. Held every ten years and employing an incredible 6.3 million people (more than Singapore's population), the census is a massive undertaking. Some have quit before it even began. In a country notorious for wobbly statistics, the sixth census aims to provide a little more accuracy and will be the first time people are interviewed according to their location of residence, rather than where their hukou (a kind of internal passport) is registered.

The complicated hukou system restricts people to living in the province of their birth, and bars access to education and health care for those living outside of their designated area.

City populations were previously based on estimates and excluded the substantial floating migrant population that moves from lower tier cities in search of work, often at the lowest strata of society. Migrant workers without the right hukou, more accustomed to being on the sharp end of a very pointy government stick, are unlikely to welcome census authorities with open arms.

At the other end of the scale, those with too many Louis Vuitton handbags to hide are probably feeling uneasy too. China overtook the US to become the world's second largest luxury goods market earlier this year, and China's 'grey income', estimated to add some US$1.4 trillion to the national economy (or 30% of GDP), is probably testament to this. So the reluctance expressed by many in coming clean about how much they earn or how many people live under one roof is understandable.

It's perhaps one of the few times China's über wealthy and desperately poor share similar concerns.

Still, the census results are awaited with anticipation. It's possible the results will be used to provide some much needed reform to the hukou system. Hopefully it will also provide a more accurate reflection of the massive urbanisation that is rapidly changing the nation, and incidentally, fueling the demand for Australia's commodities.