Counting millions of migrant workers and citizens' privacy concerns are among the biggest difficulties facing China as it prepares for the world's largest census next month, an official said Wednesday.
Six million census takers will be deployed across the country Nov. 1-10 to account for more than 1.3 billion people — the first such tally since 2000.
It will be the sixth time China has conducted a national census but the first time it has counted people where they live, not where they are legally registered, said Feng Nailin, vice director of the group coordinating the 2010 census.
The change will allow China to formally track its rapid urbanization. But accounting for its highly mobile and growing migrant population, which has fueled the country's astonishing economic rise, will be a "major difficulty," said Feng, who is with the National Bureau of Statistics.
Under China's strict household registration system, known as hukou, citizens are designated as either urban or rural. Migrant workers from the countryside are registered in their hometowns, not in the cities where many have lived for years. The system essentially restricts their access to government services including health and education.
Feng said citizens have also become less cooperative in sharing personal details as they become increasingly aware of their rights to privacy. Although census takers are sworn to confidentiality, citizens are suspicious that the information they give can be used against them, he said.
He promised the census-takers would keep all information secret and protect the privacy of interviewees.
"The information will not be used to evaluate the performance of any entities or organizations. This information will not be used to impose penalties on any individuals," he said.
Families with unregistered children may also be reluctant to provide information. China has a one-child policy and parents with children born in violation of the rule are required to pay a hefty fine. To encourage people to come forward, families will be charged a reduced penalty if they register their extra children in the census, Feng said.
Volunteers have been going door-to-door in China for months, taking initial polls of how many people live in each home and recording contact numbers to help census takers ahead of time.
The last official census in 2000 recorded 1.26 billion people, though the country takes annual surveys that showed population numbers rising to 1.3 billion in 2009.
The official data, which is not expected to be released until next year, will give China's leaders a clear foundation to plan the country's future economic and social policies, Feng said.