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Beds, Toothbrushes, and Canoes: How to Count 1.3 Billion (Wary) People

Michal Ish Shalom

American citizens may have been wary of the recent census, but not nearly as wary as their Chinese counterparts. With many worried about penalties they will have to pay for violating laws, census workers in China face a difficult challenge, and often resort to unconventional methods of counting the countries estimated 1.3 billion people.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

How many Chinese people did you meet up with this week? To you, this question may seem inconsequential, but there are no less than six million Chinese who have been seeking to meet an even greater number of Chinese, to gather details about them. Sound complicated? The Chinese think so, too. Last Monday, China set off to take the world’s largest census, with the goal of counting an estimated 1.3 billion people.

In the previous census, which took place a decade ago, “only” 1.27 billion Chinese were counted. A .03 increase may seem insignificant at first glance, but when discussing billions that represents 30 million additional people in 10 years — equivalent to approximately 10% of America’s entire population.

And that figure only represents recorded births. There is suspicion that many births go unreported due to China’s one-china law, and this is what census takers are trying to determine.

“Census benefits all” scream billboards on every street corner — in Chinese and in English — and, “Mother, don’t forget to tell the census-taker: I’m part of the census, too,”

But the effort may be extremely difficult for the Chinese government, which is quickly discovering that not everyone thinks as they do. Feng Nailin, director of the Census Bureau, admits to encountering resistance. He says during that last month’s preliminary, small-scale census, the pollsters encountered “more and more opposition to the matter.”

The questions that 400 million Chinese households are to answer include information about their names, ages, number of children, marital status, and the number of residents in their home, along with questions about the size of their home. Many citizens feel threatened by these questions, but ten percent of them — chosen at random — will have to answer more invasive questions regarding work conditions, employment, the year in which their apartment block was built, the number of stories in their home, the cooking fuel they use (natural gas, electricity, coal, or firewood), whether they have access to running water, a kitchen, a laundry room, and indoor plumbing, among forty-five other questions.

Some don’t see the problem with answering the lengthier questionnaire. Wong Xeksan, 63, answered all the questions quickly. “The regional director explained it to me very well, and I’m happy that I was chosen at random to answer the more detailed questionnaire,” she says. “Giving answers to more detailed questions about living conditions can help create the country’s housing policy,” she adds.

Others consider filling out the questionnaire an important obligation. Zao Dalin, an elderly citizen who lives in the Chaoyang district of eastern Beijing, gladly answered the two-page questionnaire. Among the details he gave were his name and academic level. “The national census is a great event for everyone,” he told the media. “Everyone needs to take an active part in it. It’s our civic duty to improve our society.”


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