Privacy Concerns with China Census

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Even with a tremendous amount of manpower and funds, the upcoming nationwide census in China will still face challenges getting real population data, demographics officials and experts said.

The sixth nationwide census will start in November and finish in June 2012. Over six million census takers and nearly 700 million yuan ($103 million) from the central government will be put into the census[.] (China Daily)

Is Big Brother Watching Us?

Both China and the U.S. are gathering census information beginning this year, so it’s interesting to compare criticism and problems. In the U.S., most of it comes from the radical right wing folks, who traditionally see any collection of information by the government as a prelude to mass arrests. Many of these people go out of their way to avoid census workers, refusing to disclose anything.

In China, fears of disclosing information seem a little more reasonable when you consider the context. For example, many families have violated the One Child Policy and have failed to register births for fear of reprisal; these folks will not be disclosing everything on a census form.

Migrant workers are 1) difficult to track down in the first place; and 2) are afraid of disclosing information because of illegal status. This is always a huge problem and is similar to the difficulties the U.S. has in counting illegal immigrants and the homeless.

Somehow I don’t think that these kinds of statements will sufficiently mollify the concerns of the public:

Public security departments have tried to dispel people’s worries, promising to help register all births without punitive measures.

Duan Chengrong, a demographics professor with Renmin University of China, said the most important goal of the census is to get an accurate picture of the local population for policy makers. Duan said local residents do not need to worry about the census revealing their personal information, as all the information can be used only for the population census.

“The government should take more efforts to win over people’s confidence, such as signing privacy agreements,” he said.

All true, perhaps, but how much faith would you place in a privacy agreement signed by some local guy who works for the Public Security Bureau? (That was a rhetorical question.)

6 responses on “Privacy Concerns with China Census

  1. Chris

    Not very bothered by the privacy threat in this case. After filling in very detailed census forms in Australia, the 8 rather bland questions foreigners are required to answer in the current Chinese census are harmless and non-threatening.

    1. Stan Post author

      You might feel differently if you were a migrant worker worried about getting kicked out of the city, I suppose. Even having a PSB employee approaching them might freak ’em out.

  2. Crystal

    For me this census will be interesting to reveal two things:
    1) the updated picture of gender disbalance
    2) the number of children prebiously hidden from authorities (mainly girls)

    1. Stan Post author

      As my post pointed suggested, I think there will be a big margin for error in both of the areas you mention. Academics will be arguing for years about what the “real numbers” are.

  3. FC

    These are real fears. The question is how and who can assuage individuals’ concerns. There are statistical techniques to check some discrepancies, but you need also the control group to be “honest” (or reliable). In non-urban area, where you have the majority of the population, probably the control group can work. In urban area, with large moving groups (immigrants), you have problems in China and elsewhere.

    1. Stan Post author

      I may be mistaken, but I vaguely recall reading that China’s population recently ticked over from “majority rural” to majority urban. Depends on classification, of course.