Propaganda as Signaling

Comparative Politics, July 2015

42 Pages Posted: 14 Sep 2013 Last revised: 2 Nov 2017

See all articles by Haifeng Huang

Haifeng Huang

University of California, Merced

Date Written: July 31, 2014


Why do authoritarian governments engage in propaganda when citizens often know that their governments are propagandizing and therefore resist, ignore, or disparage the messages? While propaganda is traditionally understood as a means to indoctrinate the masses with pro-regime values and attitudes, i.e., it “brainwashes” people, I propose a theory that propaganda is often not used for indoctrination, but rather to signal the government’s strength in maintaining social control and political order, i.e., it intimidates citizens. I use unique survey data from China to test the argument. Consistent with the theoretical prediction, Chinese college students with more exposure to state propaganda in the form of ideological and political education do not have a more positive view of China’s government and political system, but they are more likely to believe that the regime is strong in maintaining political order and social stability, and less willing to participate in political dissent. Additional evidences consistent with the theory are also briefly discussed.

Keywords: Propaganda, Signaling, Political Education, China, Authoritarianism

Suggested Citation

Huang, Haifeng, Propaganda as Signaling (July 31, 2014). Comparative Politics, July 2015, Available at SSRN: or

Haifeng Huang (Contact Author)

University of California, Merced ( email )

Merced, CA
United States

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