BEIJING (Reuters) - China launched a once-in-a-decade census on Monday in an exercise that will form a basis for policy-making in the world's most populous country, but is likely to face resistance from residents wary of government officials.
Six million census-takers will fan out across the country from the booming cities on the eastern coast to the remote mountains of restive Tibet as they try to visit some 400 million households over a 10-day period.
"The census is the basis for making policies on education, medical care, employment and social warfare and aid," Communist Party mouthpiece the People's Daily said in an editorial. "This is the biggest social mobilization of peaceful times."
The exercise will cost about 700 million yuan ($104.9 million), with 90 percent of respondents being asked 18 questions, including details about eduction and ethnic groups. The results will be released next April.
For the first time, China is counting people based on where they actually live, rather than where they are registered under the household registration, or 'hukou', system.
The results will help measure the degree of China's urbanization, as well as previously uncounted children born in defiance of the one-child policy, and will outline a country undergoing a massive population shift.
It will show that almost half the country's 1.3 billion people now live in cities, though many lack a city 'hukou', meaning they are not formally registered there and do not enjoy all the social security benefits of urban dwellers.
Over the next 20 years another 400 million rural residents are expected to move to the cities, according to state media, adding to the estimated 200 million migrant workers who already work in cafes, factories and on building sites in urban areas.
That is fuelling a building boom, especially in inland cities where growth has lagged that of the coast, and should help boost economic growth, as better educated and wealthier urbanites earn more and in turn spend more than their rural cousins.
"For the majority of these migrant workers, they will not go back to the villages. They will remain, live and work, in the cities," said Wang Jing, a professor at Capital University of Economics and Business' School of Labour Economics.
The census will also outline how fast the country is aging. The government expects an average of 8 million to turn 60 each year by around 2015, 3.2 million more than the average in 2006-2010.
The population dependency ratio, the proportion of those too young or old to work, is seen rising for the first time after falling for over 40 years, while the ratio of those aged 15-59 is predicted to peak and then slowly start to fall.
This would leave China's younger generation supporting a much larger aging population. Demographers worry China will probably become the first country in the world to age before it gets rich.
Census takers are unlikely to have an easy time in a country nervous of government officials and a large floating population of migrant workers who keep irregular hours and may live in temporary accommodation.
Green banners encouraging people to participate festoon Beijing, in a departure from the usual red public propaganda banners, and text messages have been sent out asking people to "cooperate in accordance with the law."
The government has tried to reassure its people that the information will be confidential, but suspicion abounds.
"What you are looking for is all written in the household registration book, so go ahead to check that -- there's no need to do a census at all," wrote one user on the Chinese property website www.anjia.com.
"Who dares tell the truth to a government which lacks public credibility and has a bad reputation?" the person added.
China's last census in 2000 showed the population at 1.295 billion. It placed 64 percent, or about 800 million people, as still in the countryside, even though migrant workers had been flooding to cities and coastal factories for a decade at least.
Additional reporting by Sabrina Mao, Huang Yan and Lucy Hornby; Editing by Daniel Magnowski