Public Opinion, International Reputation, and Audience Cost in an Authoritarian Regime - by CWP Alumni Xiaojun Li and Dingding Chen

Tuesday, Mar 13, 2018

Does the public in authoritarian regimes react to their leaders’ foreign policy behavior similarly as their democratic counterparts? We investigate this question by implementing a series of survey experiments in China, a single-party authoritarian state. Findings based on responses from 5,375 Chinese adults show that empty threats and commitments expose the Chinese government to substantial disapproval from the citizens out of concern for potential damages to China’s international reputation. Additionally, qualitative evidence reveal that citizens have multiple channels to express their disapproval, thus identifying potential mechanisms through which authoritarian audiences can punish their leaders for pulling out of public commitments. These findings contribute to the ongoing debate over whether and how domestic audiences make commitments credible in authoritarian states.


How domestic publics can constrain and inform foreign policy has long been a topic of interest to scholars of international relations. Recent attempts to identify the causal mechanisms of the domestic sources of foreign policy have shifted to survey experiments1 . These studies find micro-evidence of domestic audience cost—the punishment imposed on leaders by their citizens for backing down from making foreign commitments and threats. 2 With a few exceptions,3 however, almost all of existing empirical contributions to the audience cost literature are limited to democratic countries. As a result, we know relatively little about if and how political preferences of the public matter in non-democracies. Our goal in this study is to empirically examine the micro-foundation of audience cost in authoritarian regimes. Using a series of survey experiments and open-ended questions in China, we provide direct answers to the following questions. First, do the public in authoritarian regimes react to their leaders’ foreign policy behavior similarly as their democratic counterparts? Second, why do citizens disapprove of leaders who back down from public commitments and threats? Third, is a subset of population particularly likely to impose audience cost on the Chinese government? Additionally, we use open-ended questions to indirectly assess the potential formal or informal mechanisms that enable the public to pressure or punish the autocrats.

March 1, 2018 Xiaojun Li Department of Political Science University of British Columbia Dingding Chen Department of International Relations Jinan University

Photo from Pixabay