Why Jailhouse Confessions Are The Hot New Thing On Chinese TV


BEIJING — What’s the hottest new thing in Chinese prime time television? Nationally televised “confessions” from those who have crossed the Chinese government.

Chinese authorities have used this peculiar form of public spectacle sporadically for years, but in the past week alone two Swedish nationals have been paraded on the country’s nightly national news broadcast. The two men separately confessed to a killing a young woman while drunk-driving a decade ago, and to running an illegal organization that state media claimed “jeopardized national security.”

Academics and human rights groups say that the “confessions” — made outside of China’s own legal processes and often believed to be coerced — are being used to intimidate those viewed as troublemakers, part of a wide-ranging crackdown on civil society under Chinese President Xi Jinping.

This week’s broadcasts were the latest in a string of televised confessions since 2013, some for political transgressions and others for ordinary crimes. Journalists have been forced to recant politically sensitive stories, outspoken bloggers have confessed to soliciting prostitutes and movie star Jackie Chan’s son has apologized for drug use. The alleged perpetrators are often wearing prison jumpsuits and expressing remorse for their crimes.

The latest confession came on Tuesday, when Peter Dahlin, the Swedish founder of a non-governmental organization that trained human rights lawyers, appeared on state broadcaster CCTV.

“I violated Chinese law through my activities here,” the 35-year-old said on air. “I’ve caused harm to the Chinese government, I’ve hurt the feelings of the Chinese people. I apologize sincerely for this.”

Those “hurt feelings” (a trope frequently employed against foreigners in Chinese state media) allegedly stemmed from Dahlin’s work with the Chinese Urgent Action Working Group, which worked with Chinese lawyers and citizen representatives who often took on politically sensitive cases. In the video, Dahlin says that his group gave money to lawyers who went on to commit serious crimes. He adds that he has “no complaints” about the way he has been treated.

Two other men whose faces are blurred out can be heard accusing Dahlin’s group of manipulating or exaggerating events to generate reports on human rights. The news broadcast also linked Dahlin’s group to the Fengrui Law Firm, a rights-focused firm whose employees were arrested this July at the beginning of massive round-up of Chinese human rights lawyers.

The country’s police have accused Dahlin’s group of accepting undeclared foreign donations, running an illegal organization and “deliberately aggravating disputes and instigating public-government confrontations to create mass incidents.” In a Jan. 12 statement, Chinese Urgent Action Working Group called accusations that Dahlin endangered state security “baseless.” Dahlin is reportedly under a form of residential surveillance in China.

A Swedish national of Chinese origin, Gui Minhai, made a tearful televised confession this week, saying he turned himself in to Chinese authorities on an old drunk-driving charge after a decade of living abroad. Gui is best known as the writer of sensational and salacious political books in Hong Kong that are banned in mainland China.

Gui disappeared from his vacation home in Thailand, finally reappearing on state TV earlier this week. He said in the broadcast that he fled China years ago after he killed a female pedestrian while driving drunk. In the video, Gui claims to have turned himself in voluntarily, a contention that has been widely questioned given the mysterious circumstances and the fact that four other men from his same publishing house have disappeared. Gui and another of the missing men, Lee Bo, were believed to be working on a book about Chinese President Xi Jinping’s love life.

With the other four booksellers still unaccounted for, Chinese primetime television audiences can likely look forward to another installment in this bizarre new reality series.