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China's TV confessions bring 'Darkness at Noon' into 21st century

Xi's justice system calls to mind a classic novel on Stalin's show trials

TOKYO -- The Chinese term dian shi ren zui literally translates to "televised confession." To be more precise, it means "admitting guilt on TV."

One example of this appeared on the state-run China Central Television, better known as CCTV, on July 6, 2016. Lam Wing-kee, the manager of Hong Kong's Causeway Bay Books, admitted to breaking Chinese law. The clip was filmed while Lam was under investigation for allegedly bringing banned books to the mainland and selling them.

Chinese TV frequently shows footage of defendants admitting guilt after they are convicted. These broadcasts can be considered warnings, or political propaganda. But Lam's confession was different, in that it was filmed without him even standing trial. This is the typical pattern of dian shi ren zui.

Other high-profile figures who have made televised confessions since 2015 include Gui Minhai, an executive at Causeway Bay Books; Wang Yu, a prominent human rights lawyer; and Peter Dahlin, a Swede operating a nonprofit human rights organization.

Safeguard Defenders, another international human rights group, traced the TV confession phenomenon back to 2013 in a report released in early April. It confirmed 45 cases so far. 

Lam, Wang and Dahlin all later told the media that their "confessions" were coerced. 

Causeway Bay Books' Lam Wing-kee meets reporters in Hong Kong in June 2016, after returning from detention on the mainland.   © Reuters

Safeguard Defenders' report, titled "Scripted and Staged," contains testimonies from many others. They said they felt unable to push back against false accusations out of fear for their own safety. 

The authorities have various means of coercion. In Wang's case, she made her confession after her son was held, in effect, as a hostage. Torture methods including sleep deprivation and beatings are allegedly common as well.

This is to say nothing of the appalling content of the confessions.

Detainees typically deny they have been coerced or tortured. They praise China's judiciary as fair and express their gratitude to the Communist Party and the government.

On the other hand, they criticize their friends and business associates. And they condemn overseas human rights groups and foreign governments that have expressed concern for their welfare, saying they have an ulterior motive to tarnish China's image.

The detainees become the regime's propaganda tools, while damaging their own personal relationships. For many, the emotional wounds linger long after they are released.

One of the pillars of modern society is a basic legal principle: one is presumed innocent until proven guilty. Coerced confessions and torture are out of the question. 

Dian shi ren zui runs roughshod over that fundamental legal concept and can be considered a serious human rights violation. It is likely a breach of China's own constitution and criminal law, as well as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenants on Human Rights.

Nevertheless, Chinese security officials and CCTV continue the practice. At times, other media outlets have cooperated with the authorities, including a pair of Hong Kong newspapers -- the English-language South China Morning Post and the Chinese-language Oriental Daily News.  

Worth noting is that the dian shi ren zui trend has coincided with Xi Jinping's reign: He rose to power as the Communist Party's general secretary in 2012 and became president in 2013.

As leader, Xi has stressed the "rule by law" and showed a willingness to carry out judicial reforms. He once pledged to ensure that "fairness can be felt in all judicial cases." He also abolished "re-education through labor," a practice that allegedly led to rampant human rights violations.

Those moves raised expectations for further progress, yet the TV confessions can only be called a step backward. They are reminiscent of the "people's trials" of the Mao Zedong era and the Moscow Trials in the former Soviet Union during the days of Josef Stalin. 

Arthur Koestler famously depicted the Soviet show trials in his novel, "Darkness at Noon." Now, that darkness has crept into the 21st century, in a country that looks destined to become the world's largest economy.

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