The Persuasive Power of Visuals in Chinese State Propaganda

The Persuasive Power of Visuals in Chinese State Propaganda

This post is based on a recent article published in the Asian Studies Review. The article can be read here and is currently available open access to all readers.

Propaganda is a key instrument of authoritarian rule. In China, state propaganda is known to be pervasive. Its effectiveness, however, is complex. While some studies find that certain heavy-handed propaganda can backfire, other studies find persuasive effects, especially when the propaganda is delivered through commercialized media or when propaganda messages are supported by perceived reality. Furthermore, propaganda is found to signal state power and reduce people’s likelihood to protest.

While the mixed effectiveness of propaganda may not be immediately consequential, during a time of crisis, ineffective propaganda could exacerbate public panic and criticism of the ruling regime. The COVID-19 pandemic presents such a challenge. Furthermore, the transformation of a regional public health crisis into a global pandemic put the Chinese government under great international pressure. As a result, the state propaganda system was in full swing to promote narratives that projected an image of a responsive and competent government. Yet, the Chinese public experienced harsh and uneven local realities of isolation, illness, and death. So, how did the Chinese public respond to their prolonged exposure to pandemic-related propaganda from January 2020? Did the propaganda shift the public’s political opinions? If so, in which direction?

This study uses original data from an online survey experiment conducted in China from March 26 to April 2, 2020 to assess the effectiveness of different propaganda narratives and forms. The research design attempts to capture the main propaganda narratives pushed during the first phase of the pandemic; it also attempts to assess propaganda delivered in textual vs. visual forms.

The hypothesized difference in textual and visual propaganda is derived from theories in mass communication. Research on news broadcasts and political campaigns in democracies suggests that visual information exerts a different impact on people’s attitudes and opinions from text. Visual imagery can evoke a greater emotional response than text, in part because images can instigate emotions that drive the formation of attitudes and opinions. Directly comparing the effects of visuals and text, an experimental study finds that when a video’s visual and audio present conflicting information, viewers pay more attention to the visual. Therefore, the existing literature suggests that visuals in mass communication tend to be more effective than text at delivering messages.

In Chinese politics, visual images have long occupied a unique place in political propaganda. Parades around political anniversaries, such as National Day, constitute an important form of state spectacle that can serve political objectives. Top national leaders from Mao Zedong to Xi Jinping have carefully constructed personal images to inspire public support and loyalty. During his first few years as the supreme leader, Xi projected an image of a genial leader who dedicated himself to serving the people. In December 2013, Xi surprised the Beijing public when he visited a local bun shop, ordered food, paid for it, and carried his food-tray to a nearby table while chatting with other customers in the shop. This encounter was widely reported by the media and resonated with the affectionate moniker ‘Uncle Xi’ that was popular among the public. However, later in his leadership tenure, Xi has taken on a more stern and paternalistic manner, projecting the image of a leader who will preside over China’s rejuvenation and ascendancy. The use of propaganda images takes advantage of the Chinese public’s familiarity with this style to create a greater sense of authority.

So, did the use of leader images enhance propaganda effects during the COVID-19 pandemic? To answer this question, the experiment consisted of five treatments, two of which were of the same narrative about Xi’s leadership but delivered through different formats: text-only and text-plus-visual. Two versions of the same article on Xi’s leadership were used as separate treatments: one version did not have any images and consisted of text that describes Xi’s visit to Wuhan in March 2020; the other version consisted of an identical text combined with 14 images that portray Xi’s visit. Both versions are real news articles published by People’s Daily. In all images, Xi wore a face mask, signalling his vulnerability and solidarity. These images portray Xi as a caring and competent leader who can lead the nation out of the crisis and defeat the virus. Some images show Xi surrounded by ordinary people in grassroots communities, highlighting his compassion. In one image, Xi was smiling and waving to residents in a high-rise apartment building. Other images show Xi giving orders to medical workers, military officers, and local cadres to direct their work and inspire their resolve, highlighting his competence in handling the crisis. Though portraying Xi’s visit from different angles, these images show his softer, more personable side. These qualities are essential in crisis communication to offer consolation to the population.

The remaining treatments cover the main propaganda narratives during the COVID-19 pandemic, including the international society’s praise for the successful Chinese model of fighting the virus, China sending medical assistance to other countries, and praise for medical workers in Wuhan.

The results show that the state propaganda on Xi’s leadership delivered in both textual and visual forms was more effective at influencing public opinion than the same propaganda narrative delivered in textual form only, suggesting the persuasive power of visuals that can evoke an emotional response of solidarity. However, the power of visuals only existed among the subgroup not overexposed to state propaganda, while the subgroup often exposed to state propaganda reacted indifferently. Furthermore, other propaganda narratives during the crisis did not change the respondents’ opinions, likely due to the inadequacy of addressing the aftermath of a public health crisis.

Overall, this study found that the persuasive power of visuals in Chinese state propaganda can evoke an emotional response of solidarity and increase the public’s political evaluation during a crisis. As the media landscape evolves along with the expansion of digital technology, Chinese state propaganda has also evolved with growing sophistication. In the Maoist tradition of colourful posters, recent propaganda has mainly portrayed model behaviour and a better future. In the new millennium, it has become commonplace for state propaganda to use various forms of visuals, including leader images and videos, to convey more fine-tuned messages. Indeed, Xi has used his public appearances to construct images that reflect his evolving political style and ambition. Therefore, propaganda images are an important component of the Chinese state’s political communication and, as this study has found, can have a consequential impact on public opinion during a time of crisis.

Image: Presidencia de la República del Ecuador, PDM-owner, via Wikimedia Commons.

Dan Chen is an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Richmond.

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