China’s Death-Row Reality Show

Until it was taken off the air last December, one of the most popular television programs in China’s Henan province, which has a population of 100 million, was “Interviews Before Execution.” The presenter was Ding Yu, a pretty young woman, always carefully dressed with colorful scarves and blouses; in each episode, she would interview on camera a condemned murderer who was about to face a firing squad or a lethal injection.

While Beijing has long been known for its use of capital punishment, the practice has usually been kept out of official media apart from exceptional cases. For some years, the Chinese government has been charged by Amnesty International and other human rights groups with having executed thousands of people—far more than all other countries combined, according to human rights groups. (Iran is a distant second, although with its far smaller population it has a higher per capita death rate, followed by Yemen and the United States.) There are fifty-five different crimes (recently reduced from sixty-eight), ranging from tax evasion to unspecified “crimes against the state,” that now qualify as capital offenses. The number of people executed for committing these crimes is a state secret.

With Ding Yu’s five years of interviews, however, capital punishment was brought directly into Chinese homes—and with government endorsement. As the BBC explained in its airing of a recent Chinese-made talk show about the program that will soon air on PBS, the channel on which it appeared is supervised by the state; the State Propaganda Department and the judges who handed down the sentences also had to approve each program. The interviews were launched in 2006, and there were over 200 in the program’s five-year run. Of the fifty-five capital crimes, Ding Yu chose only clear-cut cases of murder: out of over 200 condemned murderers only five refused to be interviewed. She claims most wanted to have their say. Her director says, smiling, “If you feed someone a banana, they will follow you.”

Ding Yu says that her object in doing the interviews is to show harsh punishment for evil deeds, and to urge viewers to be “reasonable and tolerant.” By the time they appear on her program, Ding’s capital offenders have gone through the Chinese justice system with no presumption of innocence and been sentenced, often in a quick court-room procedure without legal representation or witnesses, the BBC noted.

She asks the convicted killers to apologize on camera. A man who stabbed his wife to death tells his daughter he is sorry for killing her mother. The daughter, with her back to the camera, sees this. Such scenes, says Ding Yu, “lift a stone from their [the murderers’] hearts.” Very young children are shown in an orphanage for the offspring of murderers. They do not speak of their parents’ crimes “because they are ashamed. “

The only details of the execution process omitted from Ding Yu’s programs are the executions themselves. The BBC states that although the practice is illegal, on their way to the place of execution the condemned are paraded through city streets in open trucks with placards around their necks stating their names and crimes. We see this. We are shown an officer exhorting a firing squad to do their duty well and remember this is a dangerous business. They shout in unison that they are ready.

Moments before they are killed, we see Ding’s murderers signing a document and providing their fingerprints to show they are not appealing their sentences. Then they have a chance to meet their families. This is also filmed. With a guard gripping each shoulder and their chains and manacles clanking, they loudly apologize to their relatives. The program’s boss choreographs this final scene and Ding Yu asks questions. One weeping mother apologizes for having beaten her murderer son once.

For the actual interviews, after Ding Yu has her face made up and her hair styled, her subjects are dragged before her handcuffed and manacled. She usually smiles throughout the program, occasionally reminding the condemned that they had done a terrible thing and asking them how they feel about it. All except one trembles, collapses, weeps, and apologizes. One program, about a man who killed a child kidnapped for ransom, makes Ding Yu weep—she says this happened twice in four years. During the interview she puts a finger to her moist eyes and then examines the finger. She tells him, “Everybody should hate you.” He agrees.

One subject who doesn’t weep is a gay man who murdered his mother. He is the first openly gay person Ding Yu has ever met. Until 1999, homosexuality in China was a serious offense and in this episode, the program explains that Ding will explore this “mysterious world.” Her most “controversial” subject—she devoted four programs to him—it was also the most popular. “He spoke to me in a feminine tone,” Ding Yu says, “... I couldn’t accept his views. I felt awkward.” She asks the man if he killed his mother because she disapproved of his same-sex relationships. He replies, “It was about money and sex.” In her final interview, just before he is shot, he asks her if he will go to heaven. She doesn’t answer. He asks to shake her hand and extends his. She says to the camera that she didn’t know what to do, but is then shown “moving her middle finger across his palm.” Ding Yu observes later that his nails were dirty, and that her finger felt strange.

A woman who killed her husband for allegedly beating her is filmed burying her face in her handcuffed hands and collapsing in front of Ding Yu. According to the BBC commentary, Chinese courts now have the power to determine whether an inner-family murder sentence should be reviewed. In the case of this woman it took several years. Her fourteen-month-old daughter was cared for by a sister-in-law, who initially wanted the woman executed but later forgave her; the rest of the in-laws hadn’t. During a court scene we see the murderer on her knees before the judges, howling out her repentance. The victim’s father also kneels and howls and demands the death penalty.

Eventually the woman’s family pays the in-laws US$8,000, a substantial sum in China, and her sentence is commuted for two years. If she behaves well, she may be kept in prison for years and then perhaps released. She is introduced, on camera, for the first time in five years, to her daughter, who up to then thought that the sister-in-law was her mother. They hug briefly, the mother tells the child to study hard, and the daughter, whose face is blurred out on camera, gives a little wave goodbye. The mother thanks Ding Yu for having helped bring all this about. Ding urges her to behave well for the next two years.

Capital punishment has been part of Chinese life for centuries and most Chinese, like a majority here in Britain, favor it. But turning these executions into a reality TV show strikes me as pornographic, partly because of the drawn-out and explicitly filmed anguish of the murderers, partly because of Ding Yu’s self-regard, her primping, and her giggle of pleasure at her own celebrity when a child in the street recognizes her while she is buying a fish for her family’s dinner. (“Sometimes,” she says, “I am so busy [traveling hundreds of miles for interviews] I have to do my makeup in the car.”)

A senior Chinese judge who has been dealing with capital cases for many years says it is a great strain. She observes that while the murderers have done evil, taking their lives is also evil. She hopes that capital punishment will be abolished, but notes that China is not yet ready for that. At the end of the program Ding Yu advises viewers that if everyone behaves patiently and tolerantly there will be no more murderers on death row. Earlier in the film her boss says of her, “She is the beauty with the beast.”