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Lights, camera, propaganda

A recent report shows the Chinese government’s use of forced confessions

Lights, camera, propaganda

Wang Yu (Mark Schiefelbein/AP)

The first time the world saw human rights lawyer Wang Yu after her June 2015 arrest was on television four months later, when she strongly condemned her teenage son’s attempt to flee from China into Burma. “This kind of action is very risky and is illegal,” she said in a monotone voice.

Yet in a recently released report by Safeguard Defenders, Wang reveals what really led to the confession: Interrogators had been pressuring her to give a televised confession since July, she says, but each time she refused. Once, they even threw a black hood over her head and drove her to the CCTV television studio for a confession, but she threatened to kill herself. The interrogators brought her back to her cell. 

Only when they showed Wang pictures of her son, whom officials had caught trying to leave the country, did she relent. The interrogators told her only the leader of the Public Security Bureau would see the video, and that would help her son get out of trouble. They turned on a computer camera and said: “Look, you can see that we’re not putting you on television, if we were, we would be using a professional camera.”

She didn’t realize the video was broadcast on national TV, she says, until she was released the following August. 

Under Chinese President Xi Jinping, televised confessions—which hark back to the “struggle sessions” of the Cultural Revolution—have become a common occurrence. Since 2013, the report found 45 high-profile confessions, including many from human rights lawyers, journalists, and Uighurs. Such individuals are often paraded on national television admitting that they hurt their country, countering criticisms from international media, and calling others to obey the law. These confessions break domestic and international laws, because they are filmed before trial and often even before a formal arrest.

Experts routinely note the confessions are likely made under duress. The new report solidifies that analysis through interviews with a dozen people who have either been forced to confess or had family members in that situation. The men and women share firsthand accounts of being handed scripts to read, having police direct them in how to act, and spending hours doing retakes until the government gets the exact footage it wants.

Some initially refused to confess, but interrogators used torture, threats, and intimidation to get them to speak. Interrogators falsely told some, like Wang, that the video would not be broadcast. In the confessions of detained rights defenders, the study found that beyond just confessing guilt, the detainees also often deny they are being mistreated, denounce “anti-China” forces, and defend the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party. 

The first televised confession was of Peter Humphrey, a British corporate investigator detained in 2013. He says in the report that he agreed to meet with two or three print journalists, but refused to be put on film. Instead, on Aug. 26, 2013, guards gave him a sedative before bringing him into a room full of police officers and state media with cameras. They strapped him to a chair inside a cage with steel bars and asked him questions. Afterward, he says, when he saw clips of the confession, they had been deceptively edited and were “almost unrecognizable to me.”

Most of the confessions were aired on CCTV, and the rest on other media platforms based in Hong Kong and China. CCTV has expanded its market into foreign countries, so the forced confessions were broadcast on televisions around the world. Because of state media’s complicity in this illegal practice, the Safeguard Defenders report calls on the United States to force CCTV to register as a foreign agent and to sanction key CCTV executives.

You can download the report, Scripted and Staged: Behind the Scenes of China’s Forced TV Confessions, at this webpage

Flying veils: Apparently the new wedding trend in China is to have a wedding veil fly through the air (with the help of wires and ceiling rails) and gently fall on the awaiting bride.


  • Brendan Bossard's picture
    Brendan Bossard
    Posted: Wed, 04/18/2018 09:07 pm

    I do not like tariffs used as a protectionist tool.  But this abuse presents a good reason not only to impose tariffs on Chinese products, but also to restrict business interests in China. This is a war worth fighting.  An economic war is particularly appropriate, as a response to probable slave labor.  (I do not have evidence for this currently.  I just know how these types of regimes behave.)  Pres. Trump needs to speak as clearly about this issue as he does about Syria's use of chemical weapons.