While attention for the past few years has been focused on the shocking footage of pre-trial detainees being forced to confess on China’s state broadcaster CCTV, including that of many foreigners, China has been opening up new forms of forced public confessions. This can only be interpreted as an attempt to normalize and popularize the forced public confession in China despite it being reminiscent of the excesses of the Mao era and a stark move away from any pretense at a rule of law.
Confessions are being disseminated across a number of platforms from court Weibo accounts to TV entertainment programs. The most typical confessions reported on have been the Forced TV Confessions before trial (and often before formal arrest). Our report Scripted and Staged: behind the scenes of China’s forced confessions provides by far the most comprehensive information on this phenomenon (we just released a full Chinese translation of that report here.)
Confessions are king in China
Confessions have a long history dating back to the imperial age, even more so, so they lie at the core of control in Communist China both for furthering the political grip and in ideological reform. A discussion on this can be read here and here.
One thing of note is that the re-emergence of public confessions — especially in their new form of televised and online dissemination — has coincided with the rise of Xi Jinping. In tandem, the legal system has also undergone an overhaul to massively legalise what would formerly have been extra-legal detentions. The two new systems are RSDL and liuzhi. Many of those who were forced to give TV confessions were held in RSDL. These confessions are suspended in an area midway between the legal and the propaganda systems.
Emerging forms of public confession:
China’s first televised courtroom confession was the trial of the Gang of Four in 1980 in which Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing (江青), did the opposite of a confession – she accused the court of putting Chairman Mao and the Cultural Revolution on trial, hurled abuse at the court, called Chinese leaders fascists and revisionists and dared them to chop off her head.
Such theatrics are rare these days, instead televised portions of courtroom procedures are typically used to showcase the repentance and confession of the defendant. These are often initially broadcast (edited clips) on the court’s Weibo, or the court’s webpage and excerpts may be later aired on state TV.
Some of the more notable ones in recent years have been:
- Former security czar Zhou Yongkang (周元根) (it was a closed trial, but a three-minute edited clip was shown on the evening news, in which Zhou pleaded guilty and repented) – arguably one of the most politically hot cases to ever go to trial in recent years.
- Taiwanese NGO worker Lee Ming-che (李明哲) (video in Chinese)
- Human rights lawyer Xie Yang (谢阳)
- Human rights lawyer Jiang Tianyong (江天勇)(Weibo video)
Their “confessions” are worded in a remarkably similar fashion to those of the pre-trial detainee confessions. For example, Mr. Lee expressed remorse, thanked his prosecutors, and said he has seen the error of his ways. Because Mr. Lee is Taiwanese there was an extra element to this confession, a “message” to Taiwan from the CCP, an expression of support for cross-strait reunification from Mr. Lee’s lips. A sentiment that Mr. Lee, a pro-democracy activist, is highly unlikely to have made without being coerced.
The short clip of the trial of another victim of the 709 Crackdown, activist Wu Gan (吴淦), illustrates what the CCP has to resort to do when its prisoners resist. Mr. Wu (who like Mr. Zhou was given a closed-door trial) refused to confess, and even according to his lawyer gave sarcastic thanks to the court for his sentencing. In the short clip that was released, we don’t see Mr. Wu speak, he just stands there, while the judges make their statements.
The televising of courtroom proceedings has a legal foundation, and appears to have really started in earnest around 2013 (although live broadcasts began back in 1998) and at about the same time as the pre-trial TV confession launched onto the scene and Xi Jinping became secretary general of the CCP. According to the People’s Courtroom Rules (Amendment 2015):
In any of the following situations, for trial activities that are conducted openly in accordance with law, the people’s courts may use television, the internet or other public media to broadcast or record images, audio or videos. (1) a high degree of public concern; (2) a larger social influence; (3) the value for legal publicity and education is quite strong. (Translation: China Law Translate).
Some trials are uploaded to a centralized website tingshen.court.gov.cn, which is surprisingly user friendly for a Chinese official website. It features a map of China, where the provinces/regions/municipalities are clickable to home in on the courthouse of one’s choice. The islands in the South China Sea and Taiwan are in there for good measure, but (as yet) not clickable.
While the number of broadcast trials may sound huge, 45,000 in 2013, that’s only a tiny fraction of the millions of cases heard throughout the year.
At about the same time as the pre-trial TV confessions were in full swing, CCTV began airing the confessions of CCP officials who were serving their sentences or had been charged with crimes of corruption. In October 2016, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CDIC) partnered with CCTV to make Always on the Road (永遠在路上), an eight-part TV series. The black-and-white slick broadcast gives officials screen-time to repent and many broke down in tears. The series was also uploaded to the CDIC website.
While Always on the Road is flashier with post-production effects and music, there are parallels with the televised confessions studied in Scripted and Staged – they both feature the confessor being escorted by the police, signing a confession, and expressions of repentance. Their confessions focus on introspective self-criticisms, statements of regret and apologies to the CCP.
At the end of the miniseries, the People’s Daily published a poll asking people whose confession was the best?
One of the key purposes of the televised confessions of detainees was to use their “confession” to denounce others. Even when the individual is free, they can be pressured with threats of being detained again or their family being harmed, to appear on television and denounce others.
For example in August 2016, rights lawyer Zhang Kai (张凯) said he was forced to appear on Phoenix TV to voice support for the trials of key 709 Crackdown lawyers — Zhou Shifeng (周世锋), Hu Shigen (胡石根) and Zhai Yanmin (翟岩民). Later, Zhang used his Weibo account to say: “My elderly parents were living in fear and worry during the six months of detention in which I was held in darkness. [I was] powerless to resist the pressure imposed by a strong regime.”
One of the Hong Kong booksellers, Lee Bo (李波), also appeared on Phoenix TV after he had been released from detention in China to say that he had not been abducted by Chinese agents from Hong Kong and that he was considering giving up his British passport in an interview that many consider forced and untrue.
Weibo and WeChat, China’s two biggest social media platforms, have also emerged as popular platforms for confessions. While not, potentially, having the same audience numbers as TV, they remain an increasingly used channel that shares similarities with the confession broadcasts.
One of the biggest “confession” stories this year was in April when Zhang Yiming (张一鸣), the founder and CEO of the Toutiao news app that fell foul of the authorities for allowing off-colour jokes on its platform, posted an “apology” on WeChat that shares language strikingly similar to the confessions.
In the same month, after the police had arrested several members of the National Tourism Chat (全国旅游群) WeChat group that raised money for political prisoners and their families, one of the founders, Dai Xiangnan (戴湘南), and also one of those who had been arrested, sent a “confession” message to the group. He said he was guilty of engaging in illegal fundraising activities, inciting others in the group to donate money and sign petitions, and disturbing social order. In the ensuing days, three more members also made similar confession statements to the group. At least three of those sent messages while in custody.
In a move which illustrates how “normal” public confessions have become in China – with no question as to their legal or ethical status, a pilot scheme in Dazhou, a city in Sichuan province, allows pedestrians, cyclists and scooter drivers who commit minor offences off if they post a confession to their social media and it gets at least 20 likes.
A new phenomenon in recent years is the CCP’s use of manipulated video to counter accusations against it. These are often circulated “unofficially”, uploaded anonymously or leaked to media. These heavily edited clips often include undated, unclear, and ambiguous footage. They also clearly violate the privacy rights of the people being filmed.
The most famous of these, are the repugnant series of videos which were released while China’s most famous dissident Liu Xiaobo was dying of liver cancer in prison. The first (which can be seen here) shows Mr. Liu in prison and in hospital, in an apparent effort to “prove” that he was being well treated. Shortly afterwards another upsetting video (which can be seen here) was aired showing the visit of two foreign doctors to Mr. Liu’s bedside. Germany later expressed their anger at the video’s release saying : “These recordings were made against the expressed wishes of the German side, which were communicated in writing prior to the visit.” Mr. Liu’s hurried funeral and burial at sea were also filmed and released.
Two more recent examples are a video of police detaining rights lawyer Yu Wensheng (余文生) as he took his son to school in January 2018. It was aired on The Paper (which also broadcast right lawyer Wang Yu’s (王宇) August 2016 forced confession). The time stamps are not smooth showing it has been heavily edited and likely as a means to delete footage showing police aggression towards Lawyer Yu.
In May, Beijing police released another heavily edited video to dispute accusations that a Hong Kong reporter had been roughed up by security agents as he attempted to cover rights lawyer Xie Yanyi’s (谢燕益) hearing at a lawyer’s federation. In this case there was footage from bystanders and the TV station itself which showed the journalist being grabbed and pushed to the floor by five men – a remarkably different picture to the official clip.