Tan Jianguo and his wife are migrant workers who have lived in a dirty rundown alleyway in a Beijing suburb for the past 10 years, eking out a meager living for themselves and their two small children.
Tan works as a handyman and locksmith, while his wife sells fried pancakes from a street stall outfitted on a three-wheeled bicycle. However, neither is a legal resident of the capital and they may have violated the one-child policy.
The 35-year-old native of Hebei Province, which surrounds Beijing, fears that when China’s census takers come knocking starting today, he and his family could face the heavy hand of the law in the world’s most populous nation.
“It will be hard to avoid the census takers when they come. I’m still not sure what I will do,” said Tan, a short man with bushy hair and thick dirty hands. “I can either stay here and report my situation, or I can take my family home and let the census takers count us there ... or we can just hide.”
Tan is among hundreds of millions of migrants who have provided the cheap labor fueling China’s economy in an unprecedented wave of urbanization that the government hopes to better quantify through the month-long count.
However, many migrants fear the once-in-a-decade process could eventually trigger a bureaucratic crackdown over a web of rules, regulations and laws that aim to control the nation’s vast population.
In a good month, Tan said he and his wife can earn about 2,500 yuan (US$380) in Beijing, far more than they could earn as farmers in Hebei’s Handan city — their official place of residence.
Their children — a five-year-old girl and a four-year-old boy — were both born in rural Hebei where families are allowed two kids if the first is a girl. In Beijing, the “one child” family planning policy is strictly enforced.
The couple pays fees to several Beijing residents for the use of their government-issued permits to repair bikes, fix locks and run the food stall — an arrangement that falls into a legal grey area.
According to census official Feng Nailin, registering migrants like Tan will be a major obstacle to an accurate count.
“The biggest difficulty will be to register the migrant population, which is rapidly growing due to fast-paced urbanization,” Feng, head of the population and employment department of the National Bureau of Statistics, told reporters.
“Another problem is many people are refusing to cooperate compared with earlier censuses, maybe because the pace of life is faster now and the awareness of privacy is increasing,” Feng said.
Feng said China’s population was estimated to be 1.3347 billion people at the end of last year That is up from 594 million people counted in the nation’s first census in 1953 and 1.26 billion people in a 2000 census, he said.
According to the government, the migrant population totaled 211 million last year — a number widely seen as too low.
“The under-reporting of new births is another difficulty” that the up to 6 million census-takers will face, Feng said.
To encourage people to report all their children, Beijing has called on local officials to reduce fines to couples who fess up to violating the “one-child” policy during the census, he said.
“Families with financial difficulties will also be allowed to pay their fines in instalments,” he said.
Beijing maintains a household registration system that effectively denies citizens access to a range of social services, such as unemployment and health insurance and free schooling when they relocate. First put in place in the 1950s to curb large population movements, it has come under fire during the fast-paced urbanization process.