How do memory and forgetting shape politics in autocracies? We combine the logic of collective action with a theory of informational politics, in which autocrats have three instruments: propaganda, threats of violence embedded within propaganda, and censorship. For citizens, we argue that historical memory drives the calendar of protest. In turn, the likelihood of historical forgetting drives the informational strategy of repressive governments. We test our theory in the context of China. The most powerful focal points for protest, we find, are anniversaries of the regime's crimes against citizens. Those most likely to be forgotten -- those that occurred decades ago -- are subject to censorship, while those too fresh to be forgotten are subject to propaganda as well. Explicit threats of violence are reserved for China's ethnic minorities, and coincide with anniversaries of failed separatist movements. We conclude with evidence that propaganda-based threats of violence generate a short-term reduction in protest.
Erin Baggott Carter is an Assistant Professor at the School of International Relations at the University of Southern California. She received a Ph.D. in Government from Harvard University and was previously a fellow at the Stanford Center for International Security and Cooperation. Her research focuses on Chinese foreign policy and propaganda. She recently completed a book manuscript on autocratic propaganda in global perspective and is currently working on another on how the United States and China attempt to shape each other’s domestic politics.
Brett Carter is Assistant Professor in the School of International Relations at the University of Southern California. He received a Ph.D. in Political Science from Harvard University, where he was a Graduate Fellow at the Harvard Academy for International and Area Studies. He was previously a fellow at Stanford University's Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law, as well as the Hoover Institution. He recently finished a book about propaganda in the world’s autocracies and is currently working on another book project about autocratic survival in Central Africa.