China's once-a-decade census highlights growing rights awareness among ordinary citizens

BEIJING (AP) — Census takers counting China's more than 1.3 billion people already face a daunting task, and it's getting harder for the latest once-a-decade update.

After years of reforms that have reduced the government's once-pervasive involvement in most people's lives, some Chinese are proving reluctant to give up personal information and harboring suspicions about what the government plans to do with their details.

"Along with China's development, the people's awareness of legal, personal and privacy rights has been increasing," said Ji Lin, executive vice mayor of Beijing whose office is overseeing the census in the capital.

"When we were little, it wasn't this way. If the police wanted to check hukous (Chinese household registration documents), they would just walk in with barely a knock. You can't do that anymore," he said.

Accounting for a population more than four times the size of the United States is set to take place from Nov. 1 to 10. Currently, census volunteers are going door-to-door across China, taking an initial poll of how many people live in each home and recording cell phone numbers so workers can get in touch when the census officially begins.

Taking an accurate census in China is a difficult task with the millions of migrant workers who've left their official addresses in the countryside for better opportunities in the cities.

Another complicating issue are children born in violation of the country's one-child policy, many of whom are unregistered and therefore have no legal identity. They could number in the millions. The government has said it would lower or waive the hefty penalty fees required for those children to obtain identity cards, though so far it appears there hasn't been much response to the limited amnesty.

In cities like Beijing, though, workers have encountered residents reluctant to allow the volunteers into their homes or answer their questions. Recent state media reports have stressed that the census workers must maintain confidentiality, though suspicions remain.

"Some people resist it because they may worry about how the information might be used by the government to investigate their wealth, for example, how many properties they have or perhaps they don't want their 'gray income' to become public. These people are often rich or corrupt," said Liu Shanying, associate researcher with the Institute of Political Sciences at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Those concerns may be well-founded. The State Statistics Bureau will use the census to examine the real estate market in parts of several cities to determine how many homes were purchased by speculators and are sitting empty, the official Xinhua News Agency reported Thursday.

Also raising privacy concerns in China was a requirement that started Wednesday for people who buy new cell phone numbers to register their personal details. Authorities say they have their sights on rampant junk messages — but some believe the government will use the new tool for monitoring its citizens.

Some ordinary Chinese cited other reasons for objections to the pre-census poll.

Guo Ying, a 31-year-old office worker in Beijing, said he would participate but questioned whether there was any point to it. He wondered whether the results would be accurate — a common concern among Chinese that official figures are often fudged to create a false sense of optimism.

"The final result might not be true and therefore it would be meaningless. Some figures are said to be found through investigation, but is that true? A lot of people have their doubts. Figures like the CPI (consumer price index), the GDP, do they reflect the real situation? Many people are skeptical," said Guo, taking a break outside the high-rise office complex where he works in IT.

The reluctance to cooperate is even as basic as not wanting to open doors to a stranger. For decades, life in China under the Communist Party centered around tight-knit government work units that were responsible for everything from housing assignments to granting permission for marriage.

Since the country embraced capitalist reforms in 1970, life here has become increasingly urbanized and Chinese are much like their counterparts in other industrialized countries: they commute, work in offices and live in anonymous apartment blocks.

"I live by myself, no way would I open the door to a stranger. Maybe I'd open the door if it were a woman, but if it were a man, definitely not. Safety first, right?" said 25-year-old real estate agent Yin Honglei.

At least one dissident was taken away by police who came knocking on the pretext that they were there to conduct a pre-census check.

Xie Zhaoping, who recently published a book criticizing a forced relocation project in Shaanxi province, was knocked to the ground, handcuffed and taken away by seven plainclothes police, wife Li Qiong told The Associated Press. They had pounded on the door and said they were there to check hukou information.

Li said some of the officers were from Shaanxi's Weinan city, where a man in the police's legal department said he did not know details about the incident. Other officers were from Beijing's Chaoyang district, where phones in the police department rang unanswered. The Beijing city police did not immediately respond to a faxed request for comment.

China Population Census official Gu Yili brushed aside questions about concerns over improper use of census information or other potential violations of personal rights. Nearly everyone is supportive of the census because they know it's necessary for setting government policy in the years to come, she said.

"The government needs an accurate figure to make appropriate policy and people need to cooperate. It's in the best interest of ordinary people," she said, working one recent morning in a Beijing neighborhood of traditional courtyard homes, making sure volunteers were giving out copies of confidentiality agreements and putting blue nylon covers over their shoes before entering homes.

"The census is for the public," she said.


Associated Press researchers Xi Yue and Yu Bing in Beijing contributed to this report.