Sunday, October 31, 2010

Migrants wary as China launches census

Migrants wary as China launches census

BEIJING: Tan Jianguo and his wife are migrant workers who have lived in a dirty rundown alleyway in a Beijing suburb for the past 10 years, eking out a meagre living for themselves and their two small children.

Tan works as a handyman and locksmith, while his wife sells fried pancakes from a street stall outfitted on a three-wheeled bicycle. But neither is a legal resident of the capital, and they may have violated the one-child policy.

The 35-year-old native of Hebei province, which surrounds Beijing, fears that when China's census takers come knocking from Monday, he and his family could face the heavy hand of the law in the world's most populous nation.

"It will be hard to avoid the census takers when they come. I'm still not sure what I will do," Tan, a short man with bushy hair and thick dirty hands, said.

"I can either stay here and report my situation or I can take my family home and let the census takers count us there... or we can just hide."

Tan is among hundreds of millions of migrants who have provided the cheap labour fuelling China's economy in an unprecedented wave of urbanisation that the government hopes to better quantify through the month-long count.

But many migrants fear the once-in-a-decade process could eventually trigger a bureaucratic crackdown over a web of rules, regulations and laws that aim to control the nation's vast population.

In a good month, Tan said he and his wife can earn about 2,500 yuan (380 dollars) in Beijing, far more than they could earn as farmers in Hebei's Handan city -- their official place of residence.

Their children -- a five-year-old girl and a four-year-old boy -- were both born in rural Hebei where families are allowed two kids if the first is a girl. But in Beijing, the "one child" family planning policy is strictly enforced.

To make matters worse, the couple pays fees to several Beijing residents for the use of their government-issued permits to repair bikes, fix locks and run the food stall -- an arrangement that falls into a legal grey area.

According to census official Feng Nailin, registering migrants like Tan will be a major obstacle to an accurate count.

"The biggest difficulty will be to register the migrant population, which is rapidly growing due to fast-paced urbanisation," Feng, head of the population and employment department of the National Bureau of Statistics, told reporters.

"Another problem is many people are refusing to cooperate compared to earlier censuses, maybe because the pace of life is faster now and the awareness of privacy is increasing."

China's population was estimated to be 1.3347 billion people at the end of 2009, Feng said.

That is up from 594 million people counted in the nation's first census in 1953 and 1.26 billion people in a 2000 census, he said.

According to the government, the migrant population totalled 211 million last year -- a number widely seen as too low.

"The under-reporting of new births is another difficulty" that the up to six million census-takers will face, Feng said.

To encourage people to report all their children, Beijing has called on local officials to reduce fines to couples who fess up to violating the "one-child" policy during the census, he said.

"Families with financial difficulties will also be allowed to pay their fines in instalments," he added.

China maintains a strict household registration system that effectively denies citizens access to a range of social services such as unemployment and health insurance and free schooling when they relocate.

First put in place in the 1950s to curb large population movements, it has come under fire during the fast-paced urbanisation process.

"I'm not so worried about the census," said Li Jiamei, a migrant from central China's Henan province who also moved to Beijing 10 years ago and now sells newspapers at a street kiosk, earning about 4,000 yuan a month.

"By taking the census, the government will be able to find out the size of the migrant population and adjust social services to better serve people like us. Urbanisation is a fact that the government has pledged to deal with fairly."

Li, a mother of two sons with a temporary Beijing residence permit, sent her eldest boy back to her hometown for middle school this year due to the exorbitant costs migrants pay for schooling in the capital.

According to Feng, complete census data will be released at the end of 2011, with research and analysis of population trends expected to follow.

The government is confident that the margin of error in the census will be held within two percent, he said -- a percentage that would equal about 26.7 million people according to China's estimated population last year.

Besides urbanisation data, the census should provide a snapshot of China's growing gender imbalance -- often attributed to the population control policy -- which has resulted in millions of men of marrying age without wives.

Fresh data on China's quickly ageing population will also be gathered, he said.

The upcoming census will mark the first time that China will count the number of foreigners living and working in the nation.


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