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Q&A: Why Are Some Chinese Afraid of the Census?

Chinese census workers gather data from an elderly resident at her home in Beijing. China kicked off its national census, with more than six million counters fanning out nationwide to tally the world's biggest population, 02 Nov. 2010.

If asked which country has the highest population in the world, most people would say China. But if asked exactly how many people live there, even the Chinese government couldn't give a specific answer. At last count, which took place 10 years ago, China had just under 1.3 billion people.

For the next two weeks, 6 million census workers are fanning across the country to update that tally. It won't be easy. The census has raised privacy concerns for some citizens who don't want the government to know their family details. But the most difficult challenge will be counting China's migrant workers, whose numbers range from 140 million to 200 million.

VOA's Kate Woodsome spoke with Sophie Richardson of Human Rights Watch in Washington about what China's census means for communities hoping to go unnoticed.

In the past, China's census counted people based on their hukou status, that is to say, their household registration at birth. This year, people will be counted based on where they live, not where they were born. This won't change their hukou status, but why is this system important?

"It is one's hukou status, meaning if you have an urban or a rural hukou, that really dictates what kind of services that you have access to. And lots of people want an urban hukou because that's where the better schools, the better hospitals, the better public services are. And what migrant workers give up when they leave rural areas to go mostly to coastal cities to work is access to those benefits because their rural hukous will not be given any standing in urban areas."

It sounds like some migrants might want to be counted, but is there a reason for them to hide?

"It's true that sometimes migrant workers will avoid forms of officialdom because technically they don't really have the right to be residing and working in cities. They're supposed to be in their places of birth. In a perfect world, according to the Chinese government, you have to get permission to transfer your hukou from a rural area to an urban area before you move. But huge numbers of people now move anyway in hopes either that they can live without their services or that they can find some way around it or that they will be given an urban hukou by virtue of living in the cities."

The Chinese government has said that all the census information would be used for research and destroyed after statistics are compiled and released. But even China's state media have said that people are skeptical of this. One of the groups that is skeptical is families that have violated the one-child policy. What are they worried about?

"It's still the case, particularly in urban areas, that population control restrictions are still imposed and that if you are found to have had more than one child, you can be fined. And so there is an incentive for some people to hide additional children they may have had, which is a tricky business. But there are also problems, I think, with respect to other aspects of people's privacy. We've seen government agencies reveal to employers or the press or the police certain kinds of information about people that should be kept private. And that includes information, for example, about someone's health status, whether they're HIV or Hepatitis B positive. That leads to job discrimination. And even though there are laws and regulations on the books in China that should either prevent these things or provide redress for people who've had their right to privacy violated, they're very rarely acted upon as one might hope."

The government's reach into the lives of Chinese citizens is nothing new, but it seems like this awareness of one's right to privacy is something new. How has that evolved?

"It's difficult to make any generalization about 1.3 billion people. But I think it's true that between now and when the last census was taken in 2000, people do have a somewhat greater awareness of their rights. And I think what may be new and interesting is not the frustration with the government or skepticism about this exercises, but actually articulating an objection to it."