The Dog that Barks: Understanding Propaganda Campaigns on Territorial Disputes

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Wang, Yaping, Foreign Affairs - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Owen, John, As-Dept Of Politics, University of Virginia

This dissertation investigates the state motivations in allowing, promoting, or even stage-managing media coverage of a foreign dispute. In contrast to media censorship, propaganda campaigns sit at the other end of the spectrum of states’ media manipulations and pose a puzzling variation. In explaining the presence or absence of propaganda campaigns, I introduce a new theory that proposes two independent variables – existing public opinion and state foreign policy intent. I argue that together and interactively, the juxtaposition of the values of these two variables drives a popular autocrat to employ media as a tool of statecraft to “bridge” the opinion gap between the public and the state. When the gap is between a pacifist public and a hardline state, the state uses a propaganda campaign to mobilize public support for a potentially risky policy. Conversely, when the gap is between a militant public and a government favoring peaceful resolutions, the state might counterintuitively also adopt a propaganda campaign, but in this case to subdue public opinion. Like a dog that barks but does not bite, autocratic leaders could use propaganda campaigns to keep up the appearances of a hard stand, thus fending off nationalist criticisms, while allowing the public to let off steam through the echoing and the venting functions of the media. A medium-n congruence test of nineteen Chinese diplomatic crises on territorial disputes and process tracing four of these cases, using primary sources and content analysis of the Chinese official newspaper People’s Daily, render strong support for the theory. This study provides a window into the domestic constraints and motivations of authoritarian foreign policy and the resulting statecraft in managing its domestic public on foreign policy issues.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
territorial disputes, authoritarian public opinion, media, international crisis, China
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