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Department of Political Science and International Relations

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staff name

Erin Baggott Carter

Assistant Professor of International Relations


phone: (203) 821-1713

office location: CPA 355B


twitter: @baggottcarter

Research and Practice Areas:

Chinese Foreign Policy, Computational Social Science

Erin Baggott Carter (赵雅芬) is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Political Science and International Rel-ations at the University of Southern California. She is also a non-resident scholar at the UCSD 21st Century China Center. For the 2020-2021 academic year, she is a visiting scholar at Stanford’s Center on Democracy, Dev-elopment, and the Rule of Law. She received a Ph.D. in Government from Harvard University and was previously a Fellow at the Stanford Center for International Security and Cooperation.

Dr. Carter’s research focuses on Chinese politics and propaganda. She recently completed a book on autocratic propaganda based on an original dataset of eight million articles in Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian, and Spanish drawn from state-run newspapers in nearly 70 countries. It is currently an R&R at Cambridge University Press. She is currently working on a book on how domestic politics influence US-China relations. Her other work has appeared or is forthcoming in the British Journal of Political ScienceJournal of Conflict Resolution, and International Interactions. Her work has been featured by the New York Times, the Brookings Institution, and the Washington Post Monkeycage Blog.

Her research has been supported by the Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation, the Smith Richardson Foundation, the Center for International Studies at the University of Southern California, the Weatherhead Center for Inter-national Affairs at Harvard University, the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard University, and the Institute for Quantitative Social Science at Harvard University.

Dr. Carter regularly tweets about Chinese politics and propaganda at @baggottcarter. She can be reached via email at


Propaganda in Autocracies
R&R, Cambridge University Press

“As long as people think that the dictator’s power is secure,” Gordon Tullock wrote, “it is secure.” When citizens think otherwise, all at once, a dictator’s power is anything but, as Timur Kuran and Susanne Lohmann observed after the Soviet Union’s collapse. This conviction — that power rests ultimately on citizens believing in it — has long compelled the world’s autocrats to invest in sophisticated propaganda apparatuses. This book draws on the first global dataset of autocratic propaganda, encompassing eight million newspaper articles from 70 countries in six languages. We document dramatic variation in propaganda across autocracies: in coverage of the regime and its opponents, in narratives about domestic and international life, in the threats of violence issued to citizens, and in the domestic events that shape it.

Why does propaganda vary so dramatically across autocracies? The answer, put simply, is that different autocrats employ propaganda to achieve different ends. Most autocrats now govern with nominally democratic institutions: regular elections, national parliaments, and opposition parties. Some autocrats are more constrained by these institutions than others, either because their recourse to repression is limited by international pressure or because they confront domestic institutions or pressure groups that bind them. Where these electoral constraints are relatively binding, autocrats must curry some amount of popular support, and so they employ propaganda to persuade citizens of regime merits. To be persuasive, however, propaganda apparatuses must cultivate the appearance of neutrality, which requires conceding bad news and policy failures. Where electoral constraints are binding, we find, propaganda apparatuses cover the regime much like Fox News covers Republicans.

Where autocrats confront no electoral constraints — where autocrats can fully secure themselves with repression — propaganda serves not to persuade citizens, but to dominate them. Propaganda derives its power from its absurdity. By forcing citizens to consume content that everyone knows to be false, autocrats make their capacity for repression common knowledge. Propaganda apparatuses engage in absurdly positive pro-regime coverage, while pretending opposition does not exist. Narratives about a country’s contemporary history are presented in absurd terms, for these absurdities give them power. Citizens are told that their countries are envied around the world, crime does not exist, “democracy” is alive and vibrant, and that the dictator is a champion of national sports. Propaganda apparatuses routinely and explicitly threaten citizens with violence.

Students of autocratic politics generally regard nominally democratic institutions as forces for stability and regime survival as secured through patronage and repression. Our approach is different. We view nominally democratic institutions as constraints that autocrats attempt to loosen and citizens’ beliefs as the key battlefield on which the struggle for political change is waged. Most broadly, we show that even weak electoral constraints force autocrats to wage the battle for citizens’ beliefs from a position of weakness. To persuade citizens of their regimes’ merits, electorally constrained autocrats must acknowledge policy failures that risk confirming citizens’ frustrations and facilitating collective action. We draw from a range of disciplines to illustrate how. Our theory is informed by field research in China and Central Africa. We use computational tools to collect and measure propaganda, statistical and network techniques to analyze it, and case studies to bring it to life. Many of these case studies are of intrinsic historical importance. We explain why Russian President Vladimir Putin’s propaganda apparatus uses Donald Trump as a propaganda tool, why the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) propaganda is more effusive than any point since the Cultural Revolution, why Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali publicized his regime’s failures before becoming the Arab Spring’s first casualty, and why Cameroonian President Paul Biya produces different propaganda in English and French.

The table of contents and first chapter appear above. A summary of the book project appeared in the Fall 2018 edition of the APSA Comparative Politics Newsletter.

Published and/or Forthcoming

When Autocracies Threaten Citizens with Violence: Evidence from China. With Brett L. Carter. Forthcoming, British Journal of Political Science.

Propaganda and Protest in Autocracies. With Brett L. Carter. Forthcoming, Journal of Conflict Resolution.

Questioning More: RT, America, and the Post-West World Order. With Brett L. Carter. Forthcoming, Security Studies.

The Kremlin and K Street: Explaining Russian Influence in Washington. With Brett L. Carter. Forthcoming, Journal of Democracy.

Focal Moments and Protests in Autocracies: How Pro-Democracy Anniversaries Shape Dissent in China. June 2020. With Brett L. Carter. Journal of Conflict Resolution.

Diversionary Cheap Talk: Economic Conditions and US Foreign Policy Rhetoric, 1945-2010 International Interactions, January 2020.

Propaganda and Electoral Constraints in Autocracies. With Brett L. Carter. Comparative Politics Newsletter, Fall 2018.

Revise and Resubmit
Diversionary Aggression and Elite Welfare Shocks in Autocracies: Evidence from China. R&R, International Organization.

Working Papers

Out-Group Repression as a Signal: Evidence from China. With Brett Carter.

Religion and (Public) Dissent: Evidence from China. With Brett Carter.

Autocratic Propaganda in Comparative Perspective. With Brett L. Carter. Under review.

The Influence of Congress upon America’s China Policy.

Small Events in High Politics: Diplomacy and Trust in US-China Relations.

Explaining Foreign Coverage in the New York Times. With Brett L. Carter and James Fearon.

Chinese Nationalists in their Own Words. With Alastair Iain Johnston and Kai Quek.


Tiananmen’s Other Children. With Brett Carter. New York Times, June 4, 2020. [English] [中文]

Diversionary Aggression in Chinese Foreign Policy. Brookings Institution, 2019.

Chinese State-Run Media Favors Clinton Over Trump. Washington Post, 2016.

The Political Economy of China, 2017, 2018, 2019

This course surveys the political economy of China. It begins with China’s political institutions and its economic history from pre-revolutionary times to the present. It then explores China’s rural and urban economies, private sector, local governments, income inequality, social welfare provision, and macroeconomic planning. It next turns to China’s international trade and foreign investment. It concludes with a review of China’s demographic trends and environmental issues. Throughout the course, we will focus on the changing role of state-society relations. To what degree has political reform accompanied economic reform? Is the state increasingly accountable to citizens? Or has China become trapped in a partial reform equilibrium in which elite interests impede further liberalization? An introductory economics course is a helpful, but not required, precursor to this course.

Chinese Foreign Policy, 2017, 2018, 2019

This advanced undergraduate seminar explores contemporary issues in Chinese foreign policy. It explores how Chinese policymakers pursue their goals: through diplomacy, force, trade, propaganda, and normative appeals to soft power. The course asks students to consider a number of important questions. To what degree can leading international relations theories explain China’s behavior abroad? Given the broad spectrum of Chinese political actors — the paramount leader, political elites, the military, and the public – whose preferences are influential, and when? What role do geographic features, economic interests, and secessionist movements play? Does China have a grand strategy, and if so, what is it? The course presumes familiarity with the basic contours of Chinese history and politics.

Chinese Foreign Policy (Graduate), 2017, 2018

This graduate level seminar reviews the political science literature on the international relations of China. It asks students to apply analytical tools from international relations and comparative politics to China, including approaches that involve systemic theories, identity, ideology, domestic factors, and psychology. In particular, it focuses on how China’s domestic conditions – political and economic, as well as popular and elite – motivate its foreign policy. Methodologically, the course reviews case study, archival, survey, field, and computational approaches to studying China. The course presumes familiarity with basic qualitative and quantitative methods in political science. It aims to prepare students to conduct original research on Asian security issues, international relations, and comparative politics.

China in International Affairs, 2016

China has been interacting with the world for millennia. No course can attempt a meaningful synthesis of that history in one semester. Therefore it is useful to begin with what this course is not. It is not a history course, nor is it a course on China’s domestic politics (though they often influence its international affairs in decisive ways). Instead, this course aims to explain China’s contemporary engagement with the world. To do so, it draws upon historical cases, empirical evidence, and international relations theory. Part I of the course presents students with theoretical tools and historical background on China’s foreign relations. Part II introduces the domestic political institutions that shape China’s engagement with the world. Part III focuses on China’s economic relations with the world. Part IV focuses on China’s political-military relations with major powers and multilateral organizations. The course concludes by asking, does China have a grand strategy in international affairs? If so, what is it, who is responsible for crafting it, and how successful has it been?

Historical Approaches to International Relations, 2017, 2018

This course is an introduction to the modern international system. It begins with the early principles of American foreign policy. It examines the origins of World War I and why the Wilsonian moment crumbled into isolationism and depression. It explores the rise of fascism and the sources of World War II. It discusses how the United States and Europe constructed the post-war order. It examines the politics of the Cold War and the atomic age. It reviews the fall of the Berlin Wall and what followed: the unique moment known as the “end of history” characterized by rising living standards and the spread of democracy across the globe. The final part of the course reviews the evidence for the return of history: the “clash of civilizations” thesis, the War on Terror, the politics of autocracy in China and Russia, and institutional decay and anti-globalist backlash in the United States and Europe. The course concludes with a discussion of the far right in comparative perspective and the role of propaganda in contemporary world politics.