Authoritarian Signaling, Mass Audiences and Nationalist Protest in China

35 Pages Posted: 22 Dec 2011 Last revised: 26 Jul 2019

See all articles by Jessica Chen Weiss

Jessica Chen Weiss

Cornell University - Department of Government

Date Written: December 13, 2012


How can authoritarian states credibly signal their intentions in international crises? Although autocrats may be accountable to domestic elites, the literature has not specified a mechanism by which autocrats can visibly demonstrate their domestic constraints to foreign observers ex ante. Nationalist, anti-foreign protests are one such mechanism. Because protests in authoritarian states are risky and costly to repress, the decision to allow or stifle popular mobilization is informative and consequential. The threat of instability demonstrates resolve, and the cost of concession increases the credibility of a tough stance. Unlike audience costs, outside observers can directly observe nationalist demonstrations, which give outsiders an interest in making concessions to preserve the status quo. This logic helps explain the pattern of authoritarian tolerance and repression toward nationalist protest. A case study of two U.S.-China crises shows how China's management of anti-American protests affected U.S. beliefs about Chinese intentions.

Keywords: signaling, audience costs, two-level games, bargaining, protest, nationalism, China, foreign policy

Suggested Citation

Weiss, Jessica Chen, Authoritarian Signaling, Mass Audiences and Nationalist Protest in China (December 13, 2012). Weiss, Jessica Chen. 2013. 'Authoritarian Signaling, Mass Audiences and Nationalist Protest in China," International Organization, Vol. 67, No. 1, pp.1-35., Available at SSRN:

Jessica Chen Weiss (Contact Author)

Cornell University - Department of Government ( email )

Ithaca, NY 14853
United States

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