China’s Political Prisoners: True Confessions?

The Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s ankle-deep heap of porcelain sunflower seeds bewitched recent visitors to London’s Tate Modern. But in early April Ai’s strong criticisms of the regime led to his disappearance somewhere in Beijing. On June 22, eighty-one days later, he reappeared at home. Not freed: reappeared, which can mean something closer to house arrest. A lifeguard at my local pool in London announced to me that Ai had been freed, and I fear that is what the “Sinologists”—as the China specialists in the Foreign Office like to be called—may have told Prime Minister David Cameron before his meeting on June 27 with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao in London. They may also have mentioned that, according to the government’s official press agency, Ai “confessed his crimes”—though it should be noted no formal charge was ever brought against him.

“Admitting guilt” (renzui) is a well-established ritual, in which the alleged criminal is forced to sign a written statement about his supposed crimes. As the China correspondent for The Observer in the 1980s and 90s, I, too, was forced to “confess” on two occasions when I ran into trouble with the authorities, once in Lhasa, once in Beijing.

Perhaps Ai’s “freeing” and “confession” made it possible for Mr. Cameron to avoid saying anything unpleasant to his Chinese visitor. Another dissident, Hu Jia, was also released just before the Cameron-Wen press conference. Unnamed diplomats claimed that Hu’s release, like Ai’s, was a gesture of goodwill to Britain, though in fact Hu was let out on the final day of his sentence. In my experience, the British government’s “Sinologists” advise that Beijing dislikes public disagreement and prefers differences to be expressed genteelly, behind the screen. My first experience of this was in 1991 in Beijing when Prime Minister John Major assured me he had pressed Premier Li Peng hard about political prisoners. But I soon found out from another official who had been present that nothing of the sort had occurred. Not for China that thunderclap “inappropriate” proclaimed by Foreign Secretaries when a misbehaving country’s relationship with Britain is not as important, as with Syria and Bahrain, and of course, Libya.

Increased trade has always been the only British goal, and was the only serious subject of last Monday’s meeting between Mr. Cameron and Mr. Wen. Many details emerged about economic matters, including billionaire inventor Sir James Dyson demanding patent protection for fans and vacuum cleaners manufactured and sold in China. Mr. Cameron spoke enthusiastically about Chinese investment in a British high-speed railway. Perhaps he wasn’t aware that the Chinese Railways’ minister who oversaw the high-speed link from Beijing to Shanghai is now behind bars for demanding huge kickbacks from those seeking contracts.

At the press conference following their meeting, Mr. Wen scolded Adam Boulton of Sky News, who asked about human rights: “We have a history of 5,000 years of suffering, but we never lecture others. Every year we will expand democracy, law, and justice.” He said Boulton clearly “hadn’t traveled much in China.” Mr. Wen seems not to have known that Boulton had recently been refused a Chinese visa. There was no hint at the press conference, where the Prime Minister spoke very briefly about human rights, that Mr. Cameron had confronted Mr. Wen about the hundreds of other disappeared or detained human rights lawyers and activists, of whom Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, now serving eleven years for “sedition,” is only the most famous. Nor is detention the whole story. The families of those detained are kept under close surveillance and away from the press; the buildings where both Ai Weiwei and Hu Jia live are surrounded by police.

When Ai disappeared in April, allegedly for having committed economic crimes (he has been ordered to pay 12 million yuan—or about $1.85 million U.S.—in unpaid taxes), he was not formally charged. The conditions of his reappearance are Beijing bog-standard. The first is qubao houshen, “pending further investigation”: for a year his passport remains seized, he cannot leave the city, nor may he speak to reporters. He reappeared, the official news agency said, “Because of his good attitude in confessing his crimes.”

Chinese confessions are as much a ritual as the kowtow, the “three kneelings and the nine prostrations,” of dynastic times. Foreign journalists are occasionally compelled to make such confessions, although they are in far less danger than Chinese dissidents. At worst, they can be expelled from China. In Lhasa, in 1984, during one of my six visits there reporting for The Observer, the police detained me because I was in Tibet without permission. They interrogated me in an office of the foreign ministry used for dealing with reporters. The whole session lasted ten minutes and was not frightening. Confess, I was told. Tell me what to say and I will sign it, I replied. They repeated that I was in Tibet without permission. I wrote that down, added that it had been dictated to me, and signed. That was enough, and I was free to stay in the Autonomous Region.

In Beijing a year or two later, I was detained in the street, forced into a car, and taken to a police station. There, surrounded by half a dozen policemen and foreign ministry officials, I was told that what I had written in The Observer over many years “hurt the feelings of the Chinese people,” and that I should apologize. When I asked what was so offensive they shouted at me that I should think it over, that I knew anyway, and that until I admitted the truth they could keep me there. The officers were vibrating with rage and one of them was an inch from my face. If I had been Chinese he would have punched me. Tell me what to write, I said again. They said it, I wrote it down, added that what I wrote had been dictated to me, and signed. The foreign office minder offered me some tea, and I left to continue my reporting.

In early September 1991, just after the John Major visit, I was told by one of the same foreign office officials who had detained me years earlier, “You are no longer welcome in our country.” When I asked why, I was once again told, “You know why.” I was not forced to write a confession. The next day, I left China for the last time. My attempts to get another visa have failed.

Fang Lizhi, China’s most famous astrophysicist and an outspoken dissident who was sheltered for a year in 1989 in the American embassy, was told by the U.S. ambassador after a meeting between Deng Xiaoping and Henry Kissinger that the Chinese would free him if he wrote a confession. In a recent piece for The New York Review, Fang wrote revealingly about the bizarre nature of these scripted confessions:

Anyone who has lived through political campaigns in recent Chinese history knows this much about the confession culture: solving a “problem” has little if anything to do with actual repentance or admission of guilt. … “confessions” in this culture are formalities. They have more to do with face than with actual negotiations. On the same principle, then, if Deng really wanted to solve the Fang Lizhi problem, there was no reason why I shouldn’t give him a bit of face in order to let it happen. So, on my own initiative, I wrote out an “account” in two parts: “concerning the past” and “concerning the future.” Not a word of it admitted any mistake or confessed any crime, but it was verbiage and it might serve a purpose.

Of course his own confession did no good—he was only allowed to leave China for the U.S. six months later, when the Japanese made his liberation one of the conditions for restoring economic relations with China after Tiananmen. During two of his own three purges Deng Xiaoping wrote confessions to Mao and each time was brought back from the cold. It was often possible, as in the case of Deng Xiaoping, to be “smashed,” to “confess,” and then to be restored after some time, often many years, to public life. Deng forced two of his oldest comrades, senior officials Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang, to confess that they had behaved improperly, but they were forced from office and never recalled.

The investigation of Ai will last a statutory year. He may be exonerated under some sort of deal, but my guess is that he will be forced to leave China for “medical treatment,” a common form of exile. Hundreds of others will not be so lucky. Whatever facilities were used to detain Ai and Hu Jia are now empty, but there is a good supply of “counter-revolutionaries,” “seditionists,” and “organizers of disorder” to take their places. This could be called a rotating stock. Liu Xiaobo still has over ten years to endure.