Twisted Tongue: Limits of China’s Propaganda during Crises and Policy Changes

17 Pages Posted: 10 Oct 2023 Last revised: 29 Feb 2024

See all articles by Tony Zirui Yang

Tony Zirui Yang

Washington University in Saint Louis

Hongshen Zhu

University of Virginia

Date Written: February 26, 2024


Extensive research showcases authoritarian propaganda can cultivate support and deter protest during ``normal'' times. This research note examines authoritarian propaganda's efficacy during crises and policy changes when the regime needs them most. We posit that various propaganda strategies, including ``hard'' and ``soft'' rhetoric, have significant limitations during crises. Hard propaganda's heavy-handed slogans could signal regime strength but may also legitimize ``rightful resistance'' against local authorities, limiting its protest-deterrence effects. Soft propaganda may lose persuasiveness due to presenting contradictory arguments during policy changes. We leverage the turbulent period of China's COVID policy reversal to conduct an original, pre-registered survey experiment in December 2022. Our findings reveal that pro-reopening hard propaganda weakens its protest-deterrence effects by reinforcing belief in protest righteousness. Moreover, inconsistent soft propaganda lowers public evaluations of China's COVID response, diminishing its persuasive effects. Our study highlights significant limitations of authoritarian propaganda during crises and policy changes.

Keywords: Authoritarian Regimes, Propaganda, Public Opinion, Protest, China

Suggested Citation

Yang, Tony and Zhu, Hongshen, Twisted Tongue: Limits of China’s Propaganda during Crises and Policy Changes (February 26, 2024). Available at SSRN: or

Tony Yang (Contact Author)

Washington University in Saint Louis ( email )

One Brookings Drive
St. Louis, MO 63130
United States

Hongshen Zhu

University of Virginia ( email )

1400 University Ave
Charlottesville, VA 22903
United States

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