China editor Paul French says many Chinese children will not be registered in the coming census as they don’t legally exist

China’s sixth national population census is about to get under way. It starts this month and will finish in June next year. Obviously with a population of 1.3 billion (likely to be revised up to 1.5 billion after the census) this is a massive undertaking.

It is costing a whopping $1.2bn and will involve more than 6 million census takers getting out, about and nosey.

The single biggest issue of concern for many in China, particularly in rural areas, will be those families who have violated the one-child policy and failed to register additional births for fear of reprisal and heavy fines.

The government knows this and has said officials will register all births without punitive measures. That statement from Beijing has reassured precisely nobody and there doesn’t seem to be a workable solution to this thorny issue of all these unregistered children.

Duan Chengrong, a demographics professor at Beijing’s Renmin University, has recommended privacy agreements between the census officials and the people. But as more than one blogger in China has noted, how much faith would you place in a privacy agreement signed by some local guy who works for the Public Security Bureau.

So the problem for the census officials is that parents will avoid giving details of their “hidden children” in order to evade penalties. Typically an urban couple with an annual income of $15,000 could pay up to $42,000 in fines for their second child.

Even though these fines are typically much lower for those living in the country, at about $3,500, they are invariably unmanageable given low rural incomes.

China’s fifth national census, back in 2000, saw record numbers of “hidden children” dumped at orphanages around the country as parents tried to hide their violations of the one-child policy. This led to a crisis as funds ran out to care for them all.

Out to work

Though it is a highly taboo subject in China, many NGOs and observers are worried that the coming census will see children pushed out of households, with many ending up as child workers.

Compared with some countries in Asia, China has not traditionally had a massive child labour problem – a child worker being anyone under 16 in Chinese law – though scandals have occurred. Most notable were terrible images of young children working in a brick factory in 2007. That shocked the Chinese public who saw images of the children on TV and in their newspapers.

The People’s Daily newspaper has reported that they have found children working in a range of industries including toy manufacturing, as well as textiles and food production.

A new report from London-based risk analysts Maplecroft recently rated China at “extreme risk” of human rights abuses, with incidences of child labour, trafficking and discrimination increasing. Maplecroft’s key findings indicate that the highest prevalence of child labour violations is in the agricultural and manufacturing sectors.

Prof Alyson Warhurst, chief executive of Maplecroft, says: “Child labour in the manufacturing sector is hard to identify. It often occurs down the supply chain when production is outsourced to home-workers.” Anyone working in textiles sourcing in China knows that this is the hardest part of the chain to investigate and monitor. The implications for those auditing supply chains are obvious.

While there have been any number of child labour scandals globally, China has been somewhat different. Of course the country’s media is censored and movement of foreign journalists is still often problematic on sensitive issues such as this.

But the problems for China’s hidden children persist. And we’re not talking about a few kids here – researchers estimate there could be as many as six million across the country, largely in poorer rural areas. It is their fate that the census probably will not uncover, as they will be hidden away.

The lucky ones will become “black permit” children, shuffled around among relatives and grandparents to keep them out of sight. But these children remain outside the official education, insurance and healthcare system. What is worrying many is that large numbers may not even be as lucky as this and will be pushed out to work in the fields or factories.

The one-child policy, the very system Chairman Mao devised to limit population growth and ensure freedom from hardship in China, may end up causing exactly that for many hidden children.

Based in China for more than 20 years, Paul French is a partner in the research publisher Access Asia.

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