The new extrajudicial show trials, which are staged spectacles outside courts of law, suggest a return to Mao-era praxis, and have been criticized by many, including leading Chinese judges and lawyers. Despite the painstaking choreography, the TV confessions are widely regarded both in China and internationally as fake — not least because of several new witness accounts provided by former detainees which emerged during Elements for a historically grounded interpretation emerge from examination of Soviet Communist, Christian, and various East Asian parallels.
The spectacle of forced confessions frequently seen on Chinese TV in the last few years is part of a wider trend in China: The Party-State is silencing alternative and dissident voices, with a new wave of censorship, intimidation, disappearances, arrests, and imprisonments.
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This current trend is not unique to China. Instead, sadly, it is part of a worldwide authoritarian turn. In many countries around the world, as in similar conjunctures of times past, authoritarians are taking power either by force, or, where elections exist, with a constituency of voters longing for a strongman. Today's authoritarians share many things, especially their contempt for the truth, for freedom of expression, and for equality before the law, without which there can be no democracy.
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Authoritarian China currently seems ahead of all others in monitoring, censoring, and managing public opinion, especially in the successful harnessing of a new digital universe of technologies to suppress dissent. Scripting, forcing, and disseminating these TV confessions, then, is one element of this project. Gui Minhai, a Swedish citizen, a Hong Kong publisher and owner of a popular bookstore for political books banned in mainland China, was disappeared from his vacation home in Thailand on October 17, But Gui Minhai had no such designation.
He evidently believed he had sufficient protection against arbitrary disappearance as a Swedish and EU citizen, a Hong Kong resident, publisher and bookstore owner, and as a visitor to Thailand, where he owned the vacation apartment from which he was abducted. When, subsequently, four more of his bookstore associates and co-owners were disappeared, either while visiting Shenzhen, or in Hong Kong itself, the case caught the attention of world media, especially the Hong Kong public.
The format is an extralegal means for intimidating and silencing anyone whose speech, writings, or activities are deemed undesirable by unidentified powers. They are of course also directed at the general public, as targeted audiences, at home and abroad. Later, in February , Gui Minhai was presented once again, this time alongside three fellow booksellers all made to confess they smuggled prohibited books into China.
Tragically, over a year after his kidnapping from Thailand, Gui Minhai alone among the four booksellers continues to be held without trial and without any justification of his apprehension — in disregard of international law, and in obvious contempt of my own country, Sweden, and the European Union, where he is a fellow citizen.
Phoenix TV screenshots. It has been frightening to see how some Western news media, loath to judge without verifiable facts, have often wavered on how to report on such statements, and on the Chinese TV confessions overall. But then the spell of this make-believe was unexpectedly broken.
Instead, he sought out independent political figures and called a dramatic press conference. We can reconstruct the steps involved, in the general pattern discerned in the current wave of cases:.
The above general pattern is reflected in all the show trials that, since , have been widely deployed well beyond the particular action taken against Hong Kong and its freedoms, discussed above. Inside China, they have been used against journalists and media executives, bloggers and freethinkers, academics and students, lawyers and entertainers, officials and businessmen, and others; including a number of other foreigners. There is some variation in the pattern: Not everyone is tortured in the same way, not everyone disappeared is paraded making a confession, and not everyone is put on formal trial.
One of the most egregious cases is that of the lawyer Xie Yang, who attempted to challenge his torturers through the legal system, only to be thwarted by more intimidation — resulting in a forced confession he had explicitly said he would never make, unless tortured. There have also been cases in which victims have escaped without being broken, as in the case of Liu Hu, a journalist involved in exposing corruption. He was detained, and videotaped in detention, but the footage was not broadcast, and he was let go — perhaps because of internal jockeying between different factions in the anti-corruption campaigns.
We note that TV confessions are predominantly staged not with ordinary people suspected of regular crimes, like theft or murder — but with intellectuals and others who have a platform from which they might speak their own mind, either defying Party-State orthodoxy, or offending some individual official. One striking example of a government official forced to incriminate himself is the case of the elected village chief Lin Zuluan in Wukan, Guangdong.
He had gained widespread local support for leading popular protests against land grabs, and was then disappeared, his grandson detained as well. He then suddenly appeared on TV confessing to bribery — to the consternation and disbelief of fellow villagers. While ordinary criminal suspects are vastly more numerous, they do not have the same propaganda value.
Insofar as they are not going to be put on show, they are often tortured more brutally, in ways that may leave physical scars. From the New York Times, Aug. In the last decade, Chinese judicial authorities themselves acknowledged on multiple occasions that police torture and false confession is widespread. China's Supreme Court has specifically condemned torture and forced confessions, and stated an official commitment to abolish such practices.
Some observers argue this new system is mainly being built up as an auxiliary tool of social control — to prevent unrest by channelling discontent into the legal system. Indeed it does do this, and it has undeniably also brought certain benefits — including for ordinary people, who can now increasingly take civil and criminal issues to court.
But another outcome of the decades of efforts to construct a legal system is that China now has many more people who have become aware that this system could be better, and how.
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This notably includes a large number of legal professionals who can see, and have been willing to say, that torture is wrong and that many confessions based on torture are simply false. These insights have been the basis for the reiteration of the legal prohibitions against torture and false confessions, voiced by legal institutions in recent years. Indeed, one Zhejiang judge concluded in that practically all wrongful cases that are detected are found to have involved false confessions extracted by force!
To many Chinese judges and lawyers it is obvious that the recent wave of extra-legal TV confessions are miscarriages of justice, since they take place outside proper legal procedures that would not presume the guilt of the accused before evidence is considered and guilt is proven in court. Indeed, the TV confessions both pre-empt and violate the law.
News media are even less qualified to determine guilt. Many months later, this clear-cut statement is still available on the internet, even though monitoring, censorship, and deletion is typically lightning fast for any online dissent. This points to divergent views on this issue, within the elite. Indeed, we can be sure that behind the scenes deep disagreements are playing out over the current relapse into staged confessions. While some Communist Party officials may want to resuscitate Mao-era politicized justice, many others, and not just legal professionals, may disagree and argue that this is a betrayal of the promise of the justice system so painstakingly built up since The lingering ethos of Communist-style self-criticism within the ruling Communist Party probably figures in this debate.
The glorification of submissiveness is part of this ethos, in direct contradiction with the idea of insisting on the right to a fair trial, so as to prevent the abuse of power. Today, the lingering intra-Party system clashes with how Chinese people, even Party members, increasingly demand due legal process. During , a special TV series was broadcast featuring a long parade of Communist officials, confessing various corrupt wrongdoings. But even many ordinary citizens can see that it extols a spirit of on-demand self-debasement which exists in stark dissonance with the idea of an impartial law that no one is above.
The glorification of self-debasement regardless of facts cannot co-exist with the pretense to a legal system. What is the source of the confessional charade that the Chinese authorities are now pushing? I will argue that it is not a holdover from imperial-era China, but has much more recent roots: in the Soviet-Russian show trials and purges, as adopted and adapted in China under Mao. Surprisingly, only just a little bit farther back, the roots can be traced to European and American modern police forces; and to the modern Western emphasis on confession which itself derives in part from earlier forms of thought control deployed in the Christian tradition.
RFA, Uyghur Service. April 11, The recognizable American and Russian references in the current repertoire of Chinese inquisitors are obvious, and have their own logic. But what is the deeper genealogy of these practices? First, the wave of staged confessions choreographed for TV clearly is also a revival of earlier Chinese Communist practices of forced self-incrimination. This feature was also used until recently in truck parades of prisoners en route to the execution grounds — but not in the recent TV confessions, which also no longer include elements like the mass denunciation meetings or executions arranged in sports stadiums or the like, but they are instead arranged as individual confessions before TV cameras, and then disseminated.
Another key aspect shared across several periods of recent history is the use of forms of torture to coerce confessions without visible scars, which would hurt the credibility of the show. Where does this aspect come from? The police wanted those they arrested to be the culprits, and consequently coerced their confessions to show a high rate of efficiency. Together with psychologically persuasive interrogation techniques including threatening more or less jail time or execution, or by threatening harm to loved ones, friends or colleagues if the victim resists , this eventually breaks the accused and makes them confess.
In order to prevent the victim from reneging on the confession in court, where an honest, credible confession is regarded as very important, clean torture may be taken even further, to persuade victims to embrace, in their own minds, an elaborate and believable story to back up their confession not just out of fear of more unbearable torture. However, it does occur. The most famous U. A recent documentary reveals the tremendous psychological agony of several of the accused who were made to internalize the belief that they were guilty.
They are not merely extracted from the criminally accused in the hands of police interrogators determined to bolster their aura of infallibility. As is well known, some U.