Amusing Ourselves to Loyalty? Entertainment, Propaganda, and Regime Resilience in China

Published date01 December 2022
Date01 December 2022
Subject MatterArticles
Political Research Quarterly
2022, Vol. 75(4) 10961112
© The Author(s) 2021
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/10659129211049389
Amusing Ourselves to Loyalty?
Entertainment, Propaganda, and Regime
Resilience in China
Shouzhi Xia
Is it possible to form soft autocracythat manages citizens by taking away their sense of resistance? This paper suggests
that the rise of entertainment media in autocracies enables the rulers to maintain their resilience through a soft approach,
thereby avoiding costly heavy-handed measures. Such a soft approach can work because enter tainment media, like
f‌ictitious pleasure drugs,undo audiencessophistication so that people are susceptible to autocratic propag anda. By
analyzing a Chinese data set, via instrumented regressions, this paper shows that a one standard deviation increase in
peoples interest in entertainment media is associated with an increase of almost 20% in both their sat isfaction with the
current regime and their anti-Western hostility. Furthermore, the f‌indings show a positive relationship between peoples
entertainment media interest and their acceptation of indoctrination by state media. In short, entertainment media
contribute to Chinas regime stability through amusing ordinary citizens to loyalty.
entertainment media, propaganda, political attitudes, regime resilience, China
There are two main models for autocratic rule. The f‌irst
model is hard autocracyin which the authorities control
society by heavy-handed toolkit such as suppressing indi-
vidual rights, coercing dissent, and censoring information, as
George Orwell depicts in his book Nineteen Eighty-Four.
The second model is soft autocracy,like that depicted in
Aldous HuxleysBrave New World. In this model, the
ruling oligarchy consolidates power by making people
medicate themselves into bliss so as to voluntarily follow
the current regime (Postman 1985). Prior research chief‌ly
concentrates on the array of crude tactics used by au-
thoritarian rulers, such as repression (Davenport 2007;
Shen-Bayh 2018;Young 2019) and censorship (King,
Pan, and Roberts 2013;Roberts 2018;Shadmehr and
Bernhardt 2015). However, the more subtle means of
soft autocracy have attracted little attention. The present
paper suggests that the rise of entertainment media in
autocracies enables leaders to manipulate average people
via a soft approach, namely, taking advantage of the side
effect of entertainment media to bolster peoples loyalty
toward the regime.
The less cognitively sophisticated citizens are often a
solid pillar of support for soft autocracy because they are
more likely to be convinced by autocratic rhetoric
(Geddes and Zaller 1989), thereby immersing themselves
in an illusion woven by autocratic leaders. While a per-
sons sophistication is affected by diverse factors, the role
played by mass media is integral. Mass media largely
organize the realitysurrounding everyday lives of cit-
izens, telling people what to think about(Lippmann
1922;Tuchman 1978;Zaller 1992). Furthermore,
Postman (1985) insightfully points out that the medium is
the metaphor, and the growing entertainment attribute of
mass media works as a f‌ictitious pleasure drugthat
undoes peoples capacity for critical thinking. Over the
past few decades, a number of literature has demonstrated
the negative effects that exposure to entertainment media
can have on the cognitive complexity of average people
especially children and adolescents (Ennemoser and
Schneider 2007;Hernæs, Markussen, and Røed 2019;
Singer 1980). For instance, Hernæs, Markussen, and Røed
Department of Political Science, Lingnan University, Hong Kong
Corresponding Author:
Shouzhi Xia, Department of Political Science, Lingnan University, 8
Castle Peak Road, Tuen Mun, New Territories, Hong Kong.
(2019) f‌ind that increased consumption of commercial
television by young people tend to lower both their IQ
scores and their rates of high school completion. 1show
that Italians who had long-term exposure to Mediaset (an
entertainment-based TV founded by Berlusconi) were
vulnerable to populist rhetoric and voted for Berlusconis
party in the 1994 election.
In recent decades, entertainment media such as variety
shows and soap operas have f‌lourished worldwide, in-
cluding many autocracies (e.g., Artz 2015). For instance,
since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian media
have been heavily commercialized, and entertainment
media have grown increasingly popular (Pietilainen
2008). Turkish drama serials are popular not only with
domestic audiences but are also exported to overseas
regions (Çevik 2020). Apart from the market and social
demands, autocratic authorities that have exclusive control
over media policy are often inf‌luential in the rapid devel-
opment of entertainment media; in other words, the authorities
exploit entertainment as a subtle means of managing the
public. The main approach involves taking advantage of the
side effect of entertainment media to increase peoplessus-
ceptibility to propaganda. In particular, many autocracies have
intensif‌ied propaganda of nationalism (Gerber 2014), thereby
aggravating the persuasiveness of propaganda. People with
lasting entertainment media consumption are more readily
convinced by off‌icial discourse because they are diff‌icult to
distinguish between propagandist rhetoric and factual infor-
mation. Gradually,those individuals are more likely to support
their autocratic regimes.
This paper uses China as an example to test this ar-
gument. With the permission of the Chinese Communist
Party (CCP), the rise of entertainment media in China is
remarkable (Bai 2005). As of the end of 2020, the number
of people using live-streaming apps like Douyin (which
mainly supplies short funny clips) was more than 870
million (China Internet Network Information Center
2021). That number is over twice the population of the
United States. Meanwhile, the ruling party has tried to
assert the dominance of off‌icial rhetoric in the public
sphere through two major tactics, namely, reinforcing
anti-Western nationalistic discourse and embracing the
internet especially social media (e.g., Creemers 2017;
Luqiu 2018). An important target group of this propa-
ganda campaign is those people who are interested in
entertainment media. If my argument is correct, compared
to those people without entertainment media preference,
people interested in consuming this media genre tend to be
more loyal to the current regime and they are more likely
to become hostile toward foreign forcesrepresented by
Western countries.
Based on a national survey (N= 2347) conducted by
Renmin University of China in 2017, this paper explores
the relationship between peoples interest in entertainment
and their political attitudes. To address the problem of
endogeneity of media preference, the study takes the
Baidu Index of the four most popular entertainment
programs (or variety shows) from 2011 to 2017 as an
instrumental variable.
Equivalent to Google Trends, the
Baidu Index ref‌lects the diversity of peoples online
searching behaviors and content preferences in different
regions. Therefore, I suggest that the Baidu Index of
popular variety shows in each province is associated with
residentslevel of interest in entertainment exposure. The
statistical results indeed support a positive correlation
between these two variables.
The results of instrumented regressions support my
argument, showing that a one standard deviation increase
in peoples interest in variety shows is associated with
both an increase of about 19 percentage points in their
satisfaction with the current sociopolitical conditions in
China and an increase of about 16 percentage points in
their anti-Western sentiment. To check the robustness of
these f‌indings, several additional regressions are con-
ducted, including the use of alternative core variables and
changing regression models. Moreover, the latent
mechanism proposed above is supported, namely, there is
a positive relationship between peoples interest in en-
tertainment and their exposure to mainstream media,
which serve as mouthpieces of the authorities.
This paper makes several contributions. First, although
great scholarly attention has been paid to the sociopolitical
implications of entertainment media in democratic settings
(Boukes and Boomgaarden 2016;Kim and Vishak2008;Prior
2005), few studies, to my knowledge, have investigated the
inf‌luence brought by entertainment media in autocracies. This
study f‌ills in the gap by proposing and testing a mechanism for
the latent political effects that entertainment media have on
authoritarian citizens. Second, a body of literature has yielded
mixed results of the effect of autocratic propaganda; specif‌i-
cally, some conf‌irm the effectiveness of propaganda (e.g.,
Adena et al. 2015;Yanagizawa-Drott2014), while others draw
the opposite conclusion (e.g., Bush et al. 2016;Huang 2018).
The f‌indings of this study indicate that this disparate result
might be driven by the feature of audiences, that is, whether
people are vulnerable to autocratic discourse affects the per-
suasive effect. Finally, the f‌indingsof this paper should prompt
scholars to pay attention to the soft autocracymodelto
avoid the high costs of adopting crude means of control,
contemporary autocracies might make use of soft tactics for
inducing people to support their regimes voluntarily.
Soft Autocracy: Entertainment
Promotes Authoritarian Resilience
How contemporary autocracies maintain stability has
attracted great scholarly attention. Many scholars strive to
provide explanations from various perspectives; most
Xia 1097

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