China’s one-child policy: changing slow-moving causes?

By Victoria Isabella Cornelia Smit

In Pierson (2004) we saw a distinction between types of slow-moving causal processes: the incremental model, the threshold model and the causal chain model. In this blogpost, I attempt to explain how the one-child policy from China before 2015  could impact all these three models when applied to various variables.

Within this blogpost I assume that the one-child policy applies to everyone and that it was reinforced strictly, in other words, I assume the intended consequences are to control population growth.

Cumulative causes

Pierson called demography an “excellent example” of a cumulative cause that creates slow-moving outcomes. One example of a demographic cause is the population growth. Given the rapid-population growth pre-one-child policy, if we see this as incremental we could imagine a “slope”. The one-child policy would change the slope of the cause - it would make sure the slow-moving cause would be even slower.

Threshold models

Thresholds are a model in which the slow-moving cause has no effect until it reaches a certain critical level, and then has strong self-reinforcing character. If we again assume population growth is the slow-moving cause for whichever threshold, and if all the assumptions for the policy hold, the threshold would be reached later.

Causal chains

In the causal chain model chains lead to certain outcomes if closely linked. One example given in Pierson was family planning in Iraq, and how this could be viewed in a political process. Reasoning by analogy, the one-child policy can be viewed as a very invasive policy for family planning. Thus we can look at the one-child policy similar to that of family planning in Iraq, which has already been explored.

In conclusion, it is perhaps not the causal chains that are providing an interesting research agenda, rather, we could look at the cumulative causes and threshold models. Of course this blogpost is limited, especially the assumptions are constraining (there were many exceptions to the one-child policy). Nonetheless, it is interesting to think about these policies and their impact on the grand models.