Beijing’s Televised Confessions

A ChinaFile Conversation

Recent days have seen two more in a long string of televised “confessions” on China Central Television, that of Swedish human rights activist Peter Dahlin and Hong Kong bookseller Gui Minhai. Did these gentlemen break any Chinese laws? What do these apparent admissions of guilt signal about China’s stance on international NGOs’ operations in China, and about Beijing’s view of freedom of expression in publishing? Who’s the audience for these “trials by TV”? What will happen next? —The Editors


The first example of the Xi Jinping era of televised confessions that I am aware of took place on July 15, 2013, when an executive at pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline’s China operations appeared on primetime CCTV News to confess that the company had used bribes to expand its business in China. Since then, confessions have become regular fare on CCTV. There is a list of such confessions in 2013 and 2014 here. The victims include:

  • Peter Humphreys, a then Shanghai-based commercial investigator who had been working for GSK
  • Charles Xue, the celebrity Weibo user (who confessed to visiting prostitutes and abusing his influence on Weibo)
  • Xiang Nanfu, a freelance contributor to U.S. dissident website Boxun
  • The journalist Gao Yu accused of leaking 'Document No. 9,' a Party directive against Western ideological influence in academia and government
  • Guo Meimei, the Weibo celebrity gold digger infamous for revealing something rotten at the Chinese Red Cross and flaunting her wealth
  • Movie star Jackie Chan’s son, Jaycee Chan, who confessed to his use of marijuana after a police bust at his apartment

More recent televised confessions include Caijing journalist Wang Xiaolu who was done for “spreading false information” that led to stock market volatility, Hong Kong bookseller Gui Minhai, and now Peter Dahlin.

It’s clear that the police are working together with CCTV and propaganda organizations to produce these videos. They are a form of punishment and ritual humiliation for the victims, and a powerful way for the party state to communicate which behaviors it finds unacceptable.

That these public spectacles of shaming take place completely outside any reasonable definition of the rule of law does not seem to be of any interest to the authorities. In 2016, we can look forward to a long-running parade of tearful orange-vested sinners on CCTV.

The use of public confessions is highly indicative of the retrogressive nature of Chinese politics under Xi Jinping. Despite Xi’s overtures on clean governance and rule of law, such confessions are political tools of fear and shame that hearken back to the “letters of self-criticism” that were part of the political terror gripping China up to the end of the Cultural Revolution.

Ultimately, these “confessions” are about the crushing of dissent wherever it may arise. The supposed crimes are of middling importance relative to the act of submission itself, the knuckling under to authority. In a word, then, this is political bullying.

When popular and influential social media celebrities upset control of the public agenda, how does the leadership respond? By making an example of one such “Big V,” angel investor Charles Xue, parading him on state television confessing under duress to moral peccadilloes hardly meriting public attention. When a news reporter digs for answers against the backdrop of China’s sinking equity markets, how does the leadership respond? By dragging the reporter into the national spotlight, where he confesses not to real and actionable crimes but to having pursued a report that had “such a major negative impact on the markets” at “such a sensitive time.”

But we might ask whose disgrace is actually on parade here?

As Xi Jinping trumpets the principle of rule of law, these clearly forced admissions telegraph exactly the opposite message—that power justifies. As Xi bullwhips the media over poor ethics, clamping down on real reporting, the airing of forced “confessions” on state-run television states loud and clear that falsehood is supreme so long as it serves power.

It might seem contradictory for a leadership that speaks so often about ruling by law and strengthening the credibility of the judicial system to make such frequent use of televised confessions like the ones Jeremy listed above. Instead of a contradiction, however, I see the use of these confessions as illustrative of how, despite all their rhetoric, China’s leaders still consider the legal system to be an extension of their political power.

At their most essential, confessions are acts of submission to authority. Confessions remain “king” in China because, despite the development of modern legal institutions and an elaborate procedural framework, the criminal justice system is ultimately less about resolving the question of whether wrongdoing has taken place than it is about demonstrating the truth about wrongdoing already assumed. When a suspect or defendant confesses, it serves to demonstrate the party-state’s uniquely correct insight into matters of truth and justice. Broadcasting such confessions is intended to reinforce that idea of the party-state’s correctness in the minds of all.

Televising confessions is also intended as a rebuttal to any who might try to portray these cases as examples of unjust persecution. Typically, such confessions come at the end of a long period of official silence about an individual’s arrest and disappearance. During the intervening period, friends and family, human rights organizations, or the foreign media will have had ample opportunity to fill the information void with narratives of a worsening political environment, gross human rights violations, and flagrant disrespect for due legal process. What better way to debunk those theories as bourgeois liberal delusions or deliberate slanders intended to undermine the regime than having those alleged victims reveal themselves as the real threats to social stability and national security?


Finally, televising these confessions is also about strengthening the party-state’s control through fear. For the majority who may not be aware of the backstories, the authorities use confessions to foster a sense of a China besieged by disruptive and nefarious forces inside and outside that are bent on undermining the status quo. For others, the combination of sudden disappearance into “designated locations” followed by re-emergence and confession leaves viewers to imagine what sort of “persuasion” might have transpired over the preceding days and weeks to make these individuals go against their own beliefs and convictions and utter these new “correct” words on behalf of the state.

China’s leaders resort to such measures because they are running out of other options to exert the control over society they so desperately need to preserve their power. It remains to be seen, however, whether the Chinese people will submit to such bullying or instead refuse to be afraid and continue to voice their opinion and demand justice on their own terms.

Rather than focus on the nature or prevalence of televised confessions, which my colleagues have already ably done, I would like to put them into the context of China's attempts at seizing “speaking power”— the ability to set the media agenda—at home and abroad.

As Joshua has already mentioned, the confessions are meant to propagate one, or more, official narratives. Perhaps Beijing hopes that, as the idiom goes, 三人成虎 [sān rén chéng hǔ or if enough people repeat something, it will be believed to be true]. But it seems more likely that the veracity or plausibility of these narratives is entirely secondary, and that what matters is whether the “official line” dominates the airwaves—to the exclusion of any other account of events.

That determination to seize “speaking power” has long been evident domestically—for instance in the crackdown on Chinese social media that David cited. But the widespread publicity attached to the public confessions might be more accurately seen as an attempt to exercise “speaking power” abroad. In that sense, it should be viewed alongside the deployment of the “Great Cannon,” Alibaba’s acquisition of the South China Morning Post, or calls to prosecute foreigners for satirical videos posted on Youtube. The most recent “confessions” might—ironically—be seen as part of China’s quest for “soft power.”