How can autocrats boost public support for wars? Previous studies have suggested that in democracies, the public changes its war attitude either through rational cost–benefit calculations or simply by following cues from political elites. This article argues that autocrats can follow a similar logic to manipulate public support for war via nationalist propaganda. Based on two online survey experiments with textual and musical propaganda materials in mainland China, this article finds that nationalist propaganda bolsters public support for war, regarding a potential military conflict across the Taiwan Strait. Evidence shows that propaganda increases respondents’ expected return on winning wars, arousing national pride, and reducing respondents’ sensitivity to war costs. However, people’s confidence in winning a given war remains unchanged. These findings suggest that nationalist propaganda can boost support for war by increasing the perceived benefits of the war and reducing their sensitivity toward war costs without changing their perceived probability of winning. It also demonstrates that nationalist propaganda does not need to be explicit about war in order to boost war support in autocracies. This study also reveals the changing dynamic of public opinions in China regarding war for unification over the Taiwan Strait, which has significant implications for security and geopolitics in East Asia.
This was originally published on SAGE Publications Ltd: Journal of Peace Research: Table of Contents.