TONY ZIRUI YANG


Ph.D. Candidate in Political Science

Washington University in St. Louis


Learn More About My Research

BIO


I am a fifth-year Ph.D. student in Political Science at Washington University in St. Louis. I study comparative politics and political behavior. Specifically, I am interested in authoritarian politics, government censorship, propaganda, popular protest, and political repression. Methodologically, I use a wide range of research methods, including formal modeling, randomized experiments, and computational methods (text-as-data and audio-as-data). I have regional expertise in East and Southeast Asia.

My dissertation, Normalization: Explaining Public Support for Government Censorship in Authoritarian Regimes, proposes a new way of understanding censorship and authoritarian control. My study highlights the normalization of coercive policies, such as censorship, as a powerful channel through which authoritarian regimes achieve social control. Apart from censorship, I also have projects in progress concerning propaganda, emotions, and public opinion toward the use of force in China and other authoritarian regimes.

In 2021, I received my A.M. degree in Political Science from Washington University in St. Louis. Prior to joining Washington University, I received an LL.B. degree in Law from Renmin University of China in 2018.

RESEARCH


Working Paper

[1] Yang, Tony Zirui. "Normalization of Censorship: Evidence from China"

[SSRN] [Online Appendices]

Abstract

Previous research claims that public awareness of censorship will lead to backlash against the regime. However, surveys consistently find that Chinese citizens are apathetic toward or even supportive of government censorship. To explain this puzzle, I argue that citizens are subject to a process of normalization. Specifically, individuals become desensitized to censorship when the range of censored content expands beyond politically threatening topics like government criticism and collective action to other seemingly harmless non-political issues. Using a dataset of 15,872 censored articles on WeChat and an original survey experiment in China, I show that (1) a majority of censored articles are unrelated to politically threatening topics, and (2) respondents exposed to the censorship of both political and non-political content display less backlash toward the regime and its censorship policy than those who were only exposed to political censorship. My findings highlight how normalization of repressive policies contributes to authoritarian control.

[2] Yang, Tony Zirui. "Participatory Censorship in Authoritarian Regimes" Under Review

[SSRN]

Abstract

Contrary to the conventional top-down view of government censorship, ordinary citizens in authoritarian regimes frequently participate in censorship by reporting online content. This study theorizes a bottom-up perspective of censorship in authoritarian regimes and analyzes its prevalence and consequences on public opinion toward censorship in the case of China. I argue that public participation increases support for censorship by diminishing the government's responsibility and strengthening citizens' perceived empowerment. Using an original survey in China, I show that more than half of the respondents have flagged content online and such participation is positively correlated with support for government censorship. I further conducted an experiment embedded in custom-engineered, simulated social media pages. Consistent with my theory, respondents that are encouraged to report simulated posts display significantly higher support for government censorship. My study highlights the role of ordinary citizens in facilitating authoritarian control and the normalization of repressive policies such as censorship.

[3] Chen, Haohan, Yiqiang Wang, and Tony Zirui Yang. "Listen to the Party! An Audio-as-Data Approach to Emotional Propaganda in Authoritarian China"

Abstract

When do authoritarian regimes intensify emotions in their propaganda? In this study, we posit that higher emotional intensity signals the importance of propaganda messages. Specifically, when propagandists speak, their voices are a combination of manipulable and sincere emotional elements. Important propaganda messages are delivered with higher emotional intensity both due to deliberate attempts to arouse emotions among the public and the subconscious emotional disposition of the propagandists. To test which components of propaganda are intensified in emotions, we employ novel audio-as-data methods to collect and analyze three years of original audio recordings of China's flagship propaganda program. Specifically, we generate audio-based measures: vocal pitch for emotional intensity and text transcripts for substantive propaganda content. We find that propaganda materials related to China's leader Xi Jinping and repressive institutions are associated with higher emotional intensity. In contrast, the regime's policy achievements and negative coverage of foreign countries are associated with lower emotional intensity. Our study sheds light on the coercive nature of China's propaganda strategies and extends the audio-as-data method to the Chinese language and the study of authoritarian politics.

[4] Yang, Tony Zirui, Deniz Aksoy and Ted Enamorado. "Russian Invasion of Ukraine Increases Chinese Public Support for War."

Abstract

A burgeoning literature shows that autocrats are influenced by public opinion on the use of force. In this study, we examine how public support for war in autocracies are affected by salient international conflicts, specifically, the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent Western responses. We use a survey experiment with 4,008 Chinese respondents (interviewed in June of 2022) to test the effect of the Russo-Ukrainian conflict on Chinese public support for war in general and invading Taiwan in specific. We find that priming respondents with the Russian aggression significantly increases public support for war. Information about Western military interventions significantly mitigates the effect of invasion. Causal mediation analysis suggests that pessimistic perceptions of peaceful resolutions and perceived morality of wars drive the results. These findings suggest that the public learns from salient international conflicts and update their attitudes on wars, which have significant implications for policy interventions on conflicts.

TEACHING


Teaching Assistant

Graduate Level

PolSci 505 Game Theory I, PhD (Keith Schnakenberg), Fall 2020

Undergraduate Level

PolSci 363 Quantitative Political Methodology (Ted Enamorado), Spring 2022

PolSci 326 Latin American Politics (Guillermo Rosas), Fall 2021

PolSci 106 Introduction to Political Theory (Clarissa Hayward), Spring 2021

PolSci 102 Introduction to Comparative Politics (Guillermo Rosas), Spring 2020

PolSci 3103 Political Psychology (Taylor Carlson), Fall 2019

Guest Lecturer

PolSci 3561 Understanding Political Protest and Violence (Sunita Parikh), Spring 2020