The Dog That Barks: China’s Management of Mass Opinion during Interstate Disputes
States frequently use media to manipulate public opinion on foreign policy issues. Authoritarian states, who have direct control of the media and engage in a large share of the world’s interstate disputes, are particularly masterful at this statecraft. Among some of today’s hottest interstate disputes, the Crimea, the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, Jammu and Kashmir, the South China Sea, and the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, autocrats use not only censorship but also its opposite – media campaigns to manage its domestic public. Although just as common as censorship, if not more, these media campaigns have received little attention and are poorly understood.
These campaigns in conflict situations present two puzzles. First, in contrast to muting a dispute like censorship does, when and why do governments choose to turn up the volume of a dispute? In other words, what motivates these campaigns and what purposes do they serve? Second, if these campaigns were used to stoke up nationalism to signal a hard stance, just as they are most commonly understood to do, why are they sometimes followed with a moderate state policy? To use a metaphor, what explains the dog that barks but does not bite, and even more importantly, how do we know when a barking dog does not bite?
Understanding how authoritarian regimes manage domestic public opinion on foreign policy issues through the use of media has important security implications for the United States and other countries around the world. The Trump administration’s National Security Strategy not only labels China and Russia as “strategic competitors” and “revisionist powers” that “challenge American power, influence, and interests, attempting to erode American security and prosperity,” but also warns specifically about their use of “propaganda and other means” “to control information and data to repress their societies and expand their influence.” The US Intelligence Community’s 2018 assessment of threats to US national security singles out the “influence campaigns” used by “many countries and nonstate actors” via state-controlled media and cyber means, and cautions that they “remain a significant threat to US interests as they are low-cost, relatively low-risk, and deniable ways to retaliate against adversaries, to shape foreign perceptions, and to influence populations.”
Through this book, I develop a new theory that spells out the causal mechanisms in which states use propaganda to bring the public in line with their intended foreign policy. The basic argument of the book is that propaganda campaigns are a strategic state action in response to the (mis)alignment of two conditions – existing public opinion and state policy intent. When these conditions diverge, leaders use propaganda to bring public opinion in line with the desired foreign policy, exploiting propaganda’s mobilizing and, counterintuitively, pacifying effects. The pacifying use of propaganda deserves highlighting because that is not how we usually interpret aggressive foreign propaganda. Not only commoners, but even the intelligence community routinely reads aggressive foreign propaganda as hint of aggressive policy intent. But if the pacifying use of propaganda truly exists, our common belief can be dangerously misleading.
I test this theory by analyzing 21 Chinese diplomatic crises during 1949-2018 in a medium-n study. I also process trace four of these cases in detail: the Sino-Vietnamese Border War during 1979-1990, the Sino-Philippines arbitration case on the South China Sea in 2016, the Sino-Vietnamese cable-cutting incidents in 2011, and the Sino-Vietnamese oil rig crisis in 2014. The empirical data comes from Chinese and Vietnamese primary sources collected through extensive fieldwork and advanced quantitative text analysis of the official Chinese newspaper People’s Daily. Detailed sentiment analysis and topic models in automated text analysis of People's Daily reveal the nuanced differences between a mobilization campaign and a pacification one.
The theoretical argument builds on and contributes to domestic theories of international relations with a focus on public opinion and media statecraft, as well as the Comparative Politics literature on authoritarian resilience from a foreign policy angle. The empirical evidence offers rich narratives about and new insights into several related contemporary issues, such as the South China Sea maritime dispute, the rise of China, and media manipulation by authoritarian regimes. The main policy implication of this book is that decision makers need to acknowledge the prevalence of the pacification rhetoric by authoritarian states and understand its rationale and mechanics. Hawkish language should not always be interpreted by outsiders as escalatory. There may be more to the harsh rhetoric than meets the eye. Only by understanding the complex domestic dynamics in these countries, outside leaders could begin to see beyond the façade of the official nationalist rhetoric and read intentions more intelligently.
To read the dissertation this book is based on, click here.