At a Communist Party of China (CPC) meet in Beijing in late 2014, President Xi Jinping made a statement that would have made Chairman Mao Zedong proud. The rule of law in China, Xi said, was “a knife whose handle was in the hands of the party and the people”.
The rule of law in China, as it turns out, is also the television remote in the hands of the people and especially the CPC – to switch on the latest “televised confession” on prime-time state television, a practice termed outrageous by legal experts.
In a Chinese-style televised confession, increasingly part of Xi’s “rule of law with Chinese characteristics”, the suspect is paraded in front of cameras in drab clothes, often in handcuffs with head down, and then “confesses” to committing crimes against the country.
These confessions are often telecast before the suspect’s been taken to court – the aim, experts say, is to humiliate and brand the person a criminal in the public eye before the due process of law has begun; the aim, experts say, also is to legitimise the CPC’s – and not the court’s – decision to prosecute.
Dozens have been paraded on television since 2013, with this year witnessing a spurt in “confessions”. The list has included lawyers, online celebrities, publishers, actors, journalists and at least two foreigners.
In January, a Swedish rights activist, Peter Dahlin, was arrested while boarding a Hong Kong-bound flight. Days later, Dahlin was on television, confessing to his “anti-China work” and apologising for hurting the apparently fragile feelings of 1.4 billion Chinese people.
A Hong-Kong bookseller confessed to a 10-year-old crime, a 70-year-old woman journalist said she “leaked” state secrets…the list is growing. The refrain: The accused were sorry for their anti-China activities.
A televised confession is the technologically savvy descendent of the “public naming and shaming” practice followed during the tumultuous Cultural Revolution decade between 1966 and1976.
Then, the suspects wrote letters and were taken out to the public square to self-criticise and confess; for the CPC, television is the new public square.
For example, Luo Ruiqing, chief of general staff of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) during the 1962 Sino-India war, wrote several letters of self-criticism after falling out with Chairman Mao Zedong during the Cultural Revolution.
“The (practice of televised) confession can be regarded as residual influence of the Cultural Revolution. But certainly it can be dated back to long before it. As early as the 1930s, landlords and rich peasants suffered from public parade and public criticism. The Soviet Union might be the source of such activity,” Cheng Hai from the All China Lawyers Association told Hindustan Times.
China’s Criminal Procedure Law states no one is guilty till proven so by the court.
“In more modern times, the CPC introduced the practice of ‘self-criticism’ in which individuals accused of various ideological or other problems were expected (and often coerced) to write and sometimes read what were basically confessions. But this was not part of any judicial process,” said Joshua Rosenzweig, a Hong Kong-based independent rights researcher.
Because they are not part of a judicial process, televised confessions could have a disastrous impact on “rule of law” in China.
“Televised confessions made before formal arrest but after a period of intense coerced incommunicado police detention are a dreadful violation of the rule of law. They represent the worst form of collaboration between all-powerful police and controlled media,” said Jerome A Cohen, professor of law at New York University and a foremost expert on Chinese law.
“It makes a mockery of continuing efforts by law reformers within the Chinese judiciary to improve the fairness of the criminal justice system.”
It’s not just experts who are speaking out against the practice but even the odd – alright, really odd – Chinese politician who is doing so.
Lawyer Zhu Zhengfu, member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), China’s top advisory body, suggested at the recently concluded annual Parliament session that the practice should be stopped.
“There are too many possibilities that may lead suspects to plead guilty against their will, or against the facts. Before a judgment by the court, we should stop society from treating them as criminals,” Zhang was quoted as saying by the state media.
There are voices in defence.
Chen Xinxin, a research fellow at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said if, for example, Swedish national Peter Dahlin was willing to admit his crimes on China Central Television (CCTV), it was not illegal to broadcast it.
“Besides, what CCTV did has also conformed to the public’s right to know, since the crimes Dahlin was charged with have much to do with the public interest,” Chen told the Global Times newspaper. (Chen did not reply to emailed questions from HT.)
But why does China ruled by the all-powerful CPC need to do this? Does the revival of the practice under Xi point to simmering problems in China?
Yes, says Gao Wenqian from the New York-based Human Rights in China and the author of biographies of Mao and China’s first premier Zhou Enlai.
“Xi’s predecessors Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao did not resort to this tactic as they were not challenged by the kind of sharp social conflicts Xi is being challenged (by) now,” Gao said, adding the CPC does this to legitimise its decisions.
“The CPC does this because it cannot even follow its own laws. To charge someone with a crime, the authorities need evidence. When they cannot find any evidence to support their accusations, they force the accused to publicly confess to minimise the appearance of wrongdoing on their part,” Gao said.
At the same CPC meet in late 2014, Xi had said: “The judicial system is the last defence for social justice. If it fails, people will widely question (the country’s ability to realise) social justice and stability will hardly be maintained.” It seems Xi’s idea of social justice and maintaining social stability in China go hand-in-glove with confessions forced on television.