Theses Doctoral

Popular Propaganda in Pop Culture: How China Sells Its Ideology

Yao, Linan

Why is authoritarian propaganda often uninspiring, and how can states create captivating content that competes in the modern information landscape? This dissertation theorizes that dictators must strike a balance between controlling the creative process of cultural elites to promote a specific ideology and unleashing their creative potential. Overbearing ideological constraints can suppress creativity, thus necessitating powerful incentives to produce engaging propaganda.

This research empirically focuses on the resurgence of propaganda films in Chinese cinemas from the mid- to late-2010s, particularly following the 2018 administrative reform when the Central Propaganda Department assumed control of the film industry. This serves as a case study demonstrating how an authoritarian state can make propaganda interesting. Utilizing novel film industry data and qualitative fieldwork, I uncover a state propaganda strategy that effectively shapes popular culture in China. I show that the Chinese government has successfully enlisted the cultural expertise of the private sector to craft entertaining and marketable propaganda through direct mandates and through shaping a market environment favorable to propaganda.

Additionally, I conducted an online field experiment that demonstrates that such propagandist entertainment likely sways the majority of viewers' opinions toward the regime. However, it is worth noting that these propaganda movies may backfire among a small portion of the audience — approximately 20% of participants — who already harbor a distaste for propaganda before watching the movie. The production and reception of propagandist entertainment beyond the film industry and outside China are also discussed in this dissertation.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Political Science
Thesis Advisors
Green, Donald P.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
August 23, 2023