The country's scholars attribute this phenomenon to its famously controversial ‘one-child' policy

The arrival of the seven billionth person on this planet, expected on October 31, would have taken place as long as five years ago without China's famously controversial ‘one-child' policy, Chinese scholars have claimed.

China's population, they estimate, would be 1.7 billion on Thursday without family planning rules that were introduced in 1979. According to the Chinese government, the measures — known worldwide as the ‘one-child policy' although they are, in reality, a more complicated set of rules — have prevented an additional 400 million births.

“The population of China would now be around 1.7 billion had it not been for the family planning policy,” Zhai Zhenwu of the School of Sociology and Population at Beijing's Renmin University was quoted as saying by the State-run Xinhua news agency on Thursday. “And the world's population would have hit seven billion in 2006.”

The government's estimates that the policy prevented 400 million births have, however, been widely debated, with other scholars suggesting 200 million births was a more accurate figure considering declining fertility rates in most industrialising societies. With this estimate, the world's population would have reached 7 billion between two and three years ago.

Less strain on resources

Despite the varying estimates, Chinese officials say the prevention of millions of births has certainly spared China an enormous burden on strained resources. By 2025, China will no longer be the world's most populous nation, set to be overtaken by India.

But as the world's population turns 7 billion, the benefits and costs of family planning policies have been increasingly debated within China.

Yang Zhizhu, a professor at the China Youth University for Political Sciences, has this year even challenged in court whether the enforcement of restrictive measures, which include heavy fines for violators, violate rights guaranteed by the Constitution.

Mr. Yang and other rights activists in China have also hit out at measures such as forcible abortions that were widely carried out in the 1980s but still occur in China's provinces, although illegal, enforced by provincial officials eager to meet family planning targets.

Call to ease rules

Mr. Yang told The Hindu that calls were growing for easing the rules, in part because of concerns that the policy had left a legacy of a widening gender gap, a rapidly aging society and a shrinking workforce.

“As in every industrialising society, in China too people are preferring to have fewer children,” he said in a recent interview.

Under China's family planning rules, families in rural areas can have two children if their first-born is a girl. Couples who are both only children can also have a second child.

In June, Guangdong, a prosperous southern province, applied to the central government to ease rules by allowing couples with even one parent as an only child to have two children, in a move that signalled a landmark move away from the policy.

Policy to remain

However, earlier this month, provincial authorities announced they would not go ahead with the move, declaring that for now at least, the ‘one-child policy' was here to stay.

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