China is using televised confessions to shame detained lawyers, journalists, and activists

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Originally published by Quartz on July 15, 2015

Over the past weekend, China’s police force began an unprecedented crackdown on human rights lawyers and others. The state media swung into action, too. On Sunday morning (July 12), national broadcaster CCTV aired a 10-minute video showing the confessions of a recently detained lawyer and two employees at his firm, Beijing Fengrui.

As with many such broadcasts in China, the TV confessions were aired before judicial proceedings. Any suspect in China can be detained by the police for nearly 40 days before a release or formal arrest—and during that time they can be coerced into a nationally broadcast confession. These confessions are at odds with the government’s announcement last year that it would emphasize the rule of law in its fourth plenum, legal experts say.

“By broadcasting these so-called ‘confessions,’ state media and Chinese authorities are rejecting the basic norms of a rule-of-law system, including the presumption of innocence and due process rights,” said Frances Eve, a researcher at Chinese Human Rights Defenders, to Quartz. “Trial by state media is not the kind of trial held in a country ruled by law.”
Labeled “criminal suspects” on the screen, the three described how they organized paid protests, hyped public sentiment, and disseminated online rumors to pressure court decisions in sensitive cases where they represented regular people against the authorities. Staring into the camera, lawyer Huang Liqun said that the director of his firm, Zhou Shifeng, was behind the cases and motivated by “unspeakable political purposes… He has the final say to all the money [of the firm]. And he is very lecherous.”

The individuals in the confession broadcasts usually appear in orange prison jumpsuits and seem either full of spirit or choked with overwrought remorse. As one user of the Twitter-like Sina Weibo described it (link in Chinese), “We used to have shame parades on streets. Now we have them on CCTV.”

A shift to high-profile confessions

Until a few years ago, confession broadcasts tended to focus on petty criminals and other low-profile individuals, sometimes before a trial and sometimes after. A shift to higher-profile individuals—including lawyers, journalists, activists, and even former members of ruling elite—began in 2013, coinciding with a government campaign to stifle online activism.

In that campaign, the Chinese-American venture capitalist Charles Xuewas detained on charges of soliciting prostitution, and he later confessed on CCTV:

Tellingly, his confession (link in Chinese) was more about being reckless online than visiting prostitutes. Xue (also known as Xue Manzi) had been active in commenting on social issues, including child trafficking and social inequality. Since being released on bail in April 2014, he’s been less outspoken on Weibo, though he still has well over 10 million followers.

Self-described “diehard lawyers”—ones not afraid of being intimidated or detained by authorities—have also made broadcasted confessions. Last month police in the Shandong province busted a group alleged to have organized massive protests to influence a court sentence. “I deeply regret my wrongdoings,” said just-detained lawyer Liu Jianjun in a CCTV broadcast (link in Chinese).

Liu had served in the case that drew the protests. One of his defenders told Radio Free Asia (link in Chinese) that Liu was tricked into the interview by a police officer who’d promised to not identify him or show his face on TV. Liu was not admitting his guilt, the defender explained, but apologizing for traffic congestion at the protest site.

In a letter to the China Lawyers Association, Liu’s wife complained (link in Chinese) that while she was barred from seeing her husband in the detention center, members of the state media were free to record the video of him there.

Journalists become targets

In April, Gao Yu, a journalist in her 70s known for reporting that’s critical of the government, was sentenced to seven years in jail for “leaking state secrets” to a foreign news magazine. Gao’s confession was broadcast on CCTV (link in Chinese) in May 2014, after she was detained the previous month. “I have sincerely learned a lesson and must confess my mistake,” Gao said on screen. She later told prosecutors she was extracted under coercion, with threats being made against her son.

Business journalists have also made televised confessions. Shen Hao, the former chief editor of 21st Century Media Syndicate, made two confessions on CCTV last September, admitting that he had directed his reporters to blackmail companies to sign advertising deals by threatening to write negative reports on them. While weeping in one confession, he said: “Today I lost my freedom, wearing a prison uniform and becoming a disgraceful man.” Shen and more than 30 of his former staff were prosecuted in Shanghai in February.

Chen Yongzhou, former reporter at the Guangzhou-based newspaper New Express, had his head shaved and appeared on CCTV, confessing that he took bribes to fabricate negative reports on a state-owned construction company. He was sentenced to prison in October 2014. (Interestingly, prosecutors said the bribery amount was 30,000 yuan, while previously Chen said it was 500,000 yuan in the filmed confession, Chinese media reported.)

Shunning the government shame parades

Amid a campaign to clean up the Internet, Wang Xin, the former CEO of a tech company, was arrested in August 2014. Charged for “disseminating pornography,” he choked up the following month while confessing on CCTV (link in Chinese) that his crime may badly affect “a whole generation.” Yet Wang has received widespread public support since the detention. On his wife’s Weibo account, thousands have commented, many saying they would like to donate money to bail Wang out for his “cyberspace spirit of sharing.”

Such support is becoming more common, and the public is starting to shun the government “shame parades,” wrote Chang Ping (paywall), a current affairs commentator, in the South China Morning Post:

“It is encouraging to see people objecting to this modern version of the ‘shame parade’ by appealing to human rights. Surely, when CCTV next airs another public ‘confession,’ more people will be outraged and see it for the joke it is, a remnant of a pre-modern nation.”

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