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China's floating population a headache for census

By Francesco Sisci, The Straits Times, 22 September 2000

BEIJING—China's massive floating population is seen as a major obstacle to the fifth national census scheduled to begin on Nov 1, according to a senior Chinese demographer.

Professor Lin Fude, with the Department of Demography of the Institute of Population Research, said that with economic reforms and a loosening of controls over where people live, millions of Chinese have migrated from the countryside to urban areas.

After they move, many of these rural migrants do not change their registered addresses.

To aggravate the problem, many urban residents who have moved homes also do not update their registered addresses.

Rural migration increased after China abolished cereal rationing in the early 90s.

The rationing system was linked to the decades-old household-registration system. Ration tickets were issued to registered households and this inhibited the population's mobility.

Prof Lin said the registration system would still be helpful in ascertaining the total registered number of people in the country.

But it would not help in collecting someone's background data—such as employment status, education level, income and the number of children -- since the person would not be at the registered address to respond to the census.

The problem is compounded by the quadrupling of the floating population over the last 10 years.

At the last population census conducted in 1990, the migrant population was estimated at 50 million.

Today, the number is estimated at 200 million.

Prof Lin said: For various reasons, not everybody who moves house is willing to change his registered address. However, we shall concentrate on the person's actual residence rather than on his registered abode.

He said at least 90 per cent of the migrant population have temporary residence permits in the cities to which they had relocated.

This would give the census-takers a fairly good idea of the demographics of China's new urban population.

Despite scepticism in some quarters, Prof Lin said the results of the forthcoming census would be highly reliable.

Doubts had arisen over the census' reliability due to the suspected high number of families who have more children than allowed under family-planning policies.

Such households might not be truthful in providing information.

Prof Lin, however, noted that people would be asked about their children, but with the promise that the findings would not be revealed to the local authorities.

Under China's family-planning policy, urban households are encouraged to have only one child each, while rural couples may have two children if the first-born is a girl.

Ethnic minorities are allowed two children in urban areas and three if they are rural residents.

According to official data, the national population is 1.26 billion. But global institutions believe the number has already exceeded 1.3 billion.

The initial results of the Year 2000 census are expected at the end of next year.