Professor Kam Wing Chan Quoted on the Chinese Census

Migrants Proving Hard to Count In China

Professor Kam Wing Chan has been quoted in the widely-read journal Science on the complexities of the Chinese census currently underway,  the largest census in human history.  To combat chronic undercounting caused by massive internal migration,  the article explains,

the Chinese are using a unique  approach that combines registration data with a head count and detailed interviews The compromise acknowledges that household registration information is increasingly irrelevant. In recent decades, over 100 million rural residents have flooded China’s cities in search of work. Many middle-class Chinese, meanwhile, have fled to the suburbs while maintaining apartments and residence permits in the city. The novelty of this year’s census worries observers like Qiao Xiaochun, a demographer at Peking University’s Institute of Population Research. After working as a census officer in 1982, he published a book proposing that China switch to a de facto count, in which everyone is tallied in the districts where they are found on census day, regardless of registration. This year’s change is a step in the right direction, he says, but it opens alarming loopholes. People “may be enumerated twice,” Qiao says. “Or they may not be enumerated at all.” Accuracy will depend on the enumerators, mostly short-term workers recruited in the past few months who will disperse throughout China over 10 days. They will help respondents fi ll out a form listing 15 questions—more than ever before. A randomly selected 10% of Chinese will complete a long form that asks about things like education, housing, and marital status.

The government is “going to great lengths to make a really detailed record,” says Kam Wing Chan, a geographer at the University of Washington, Seattle, who studies migration in China. But that  thoroughness, he says, has drawbacks: More questions could reduce the response rate. In 1982, when China introduced modern census-taking techniques, many Chinese lived in closely monitored work units. Today people are busier, more mobile, and more private. Everyone from unmarried couples worried about disapproving neighbors to tax-evading tycoons may have reason to dread the enumerators. In recent months, a barrage of propaganda has assured wary Chinese that information will be used only for calculating population data—and reminded them that the census is essential for planning schools, nursing homes, and transportation networks. But some local authorities implementing the count have already reneged on the promise to safeguard individual rights. During a census rehearsal in Beijing last August, plainclothes police posing as enumerators detained dissident writer Xie Chaoping

Professor Chan also guest-edited a special journal issue on China’s 2000 census, arguing that the higher undercounting rate in that census “could well reflect a freer, and more diverse and mobile Chinese population in 2000 than in 1990. Instead of the population obediently queuing up to be counted, as perhaps occurred in 1982 to achieve an amazingly high accuracy of headcount, an increasing but still small proportion of people probably reacted to the census in 2000 in a less cooperative way. They gave inaccurate answers unintentionally or intentionally, or simply refused to answer some questions.  Still others, like the “above-quota birth” children, or the homeless and itinerant commercial sex workers, were by nature hard for the census workers to locate. The emergence of these problems in 2000 also tells us that China is becoming more like other societies.”

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