The Return of the Show Trial: China’s Televised “Confessions”. By Magnus Fiskesjö

Abstract: This article investigates the recent wave of staged confessions in China in historical perspective. Currently, the authorities “disappear,” detain, and parade people, both Chinese and foreigners, on state television, forcing them to incriminate themselves by making abject confessions prior to legal proceedings. This is a clear break with years of efforts to build the rule of law in China. It also reverses multiple solemn declarations to prohibit police torture and forced confessions, both longstanding practices in China. The new extrajudicial show trials, which are staged spectacles outside courts of law, suggest a return to Mao-era praxis, and have been criticized by many, including leading Chinese judges and lawyers. Despite the painstaking choreography, the TV confessions are widely regarded both in China and internationally as fake - not least because of several new witness accounts provided by former detainees which emerged during 2016. Elements for a historically grounded interpretation emerge from examination of Soviet Communist, Christian, and various East Asian parallels. Kafka's allegory in The Trial exposes how the powerful frame the innocent by forcing them to “confess,” in order to perpetuate their power. 

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The spectacle of forced confessions frequently seen on Chinese TV in the last few years is part of a wider trend in China: The Party-State is silencing alternative and dissident voices, with a new wave of censorship, intimidation, disappearances, arrests, and imprisonments. This current trend is not unique to China. Instead, sadly, it is part of a worldwide authoritarian turn. In many countries around the world, as in similar conjunctures of times past, authoritarians are taking power either by force, or, where elections exist, with a constituency of voters longing for a strongman.

Today's authoritarians share many things, especially their contempt for the truth, for freedom of expression, and for equality before the law, without which there can be no democracy. They congratulate each other on their purported efficiency in “telling it like it is,” and in “getting things done.” They seek to censor and to “guide” public opinion. Authoritarian China currently seems ahead of all others in monitoring, censoring, and managing public opinion, especially in the successful harnessing of a new digital universe of technologies to suppress dissent.

China’s forced TV confessions are closely related to one key element in this authoritarian turn - to go beyond the mere silencing of alternative voices and opinions, and “shape reality.” In China this post-truth manufacturing seems to be not just about silencing dissent, but also - after the loss of faith in Communist ideology - about shaping a certain new kind of predictably obedient society sometimes framed as the harmonious society. Scripting, forcing, and disseminating these TV confessions, then, is one element of this project. 

The Disappeared Hong Kong Booksellers
Gui Minhai, a Swedish citizen, a Hong Kong publisher and owner of a popular bookstore for political books banned in mainland China, was disappeared from his vacation home in Thailand on October 17, 2015. Cameras in the building and testimony from locals show that he was taken away by several Chinese-speaking men, likely agents from one of the Chinese state or Communist Party security services, although neither their actions nor their identity has been acknowledged by the Chinese authorities - or indeed by Thailand. A number of Chinese citizens have been similarly repatriated from Thailand against their will, including Uighur asylum seekers and two Han Chinese political dissidents who had been recognized as political refugees by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), which called their sudden, preemptive repatriation to China “a serious disappointment.”

But Gui Minhai had no such designation. He evidently believed he had sufficient protection against arbitrary disappearance as a Swedish and EU citizen, a Hong Kong resident, publisher and bookstore owner, and as a visitor to Thailand, where he owned the vacation apartment from which he was abducted. When, subsequently, four more of his bookstore associates and co-owners were disappeared, either while visiting Shenzhen, or in Hong Kong itself, the case caught the attention of world media, especially the Hong Kong public. The trigger for the wider publicity was when the fifth bookseller, Mr. Lee Bo, disappeared from one of the Causeway Bay Bookstore's facilities in Hong Kong, on December 30, 2015. If indeed he was abducted, as it seems, this would directly violate China’s 1997 promise to let Hong Kong have judicial autonomy until the year 2047.

When Gui Minhai, also known as a poet and writer under his pen name Ahai, suddenly appeared on Chinese state TV on January 17, 2016, “confessing” that he had voluntarily returned to face charges supposedly outstanding from a decade-old traffic accident, it became clear that this was another installment in the series of staged confessions presented with increasing frequency since 2013.
These confessions are coerced - the detainees have no opportunity to challenge their detention or argue their case, and, being under obvious duress, can only comply. The format is an extralegal means for intimidating and silencing anyone whose speech, writings, or activities are deemed undesirable by unidentified powers. They are of course also directed at the general public, as targeted audiences, at home and abroad.

The increasing use of this format may be partly due to a certain Jiang Jianguo, deputy director of the Communist Party’s propaganda office, who is said to have argued for a revival of the approach at an internal government meeting, saying “[This way,] the educational effect will be the greatest.” According to this unconfirmed account, the campaign is orchestrated in collaboration between the police, which apprehends and works over the victims, and the Party propaganda office, which takes overall charge and directs the choreography of the staged confessions.

Later, in February 2016, Gui Minhai was presented once again, this time alongside three fellow booksellers all made to confess they smuggled prohibited books into China. Meanwhile, their bookstore changed hands in obscure circumstances, and the bulk of the printed books in storage was destroyed. At the same time, in Hong Kong, some of these books, which purport to reveal secret details about Chinese Communist leaders, have been sold publicly as a form of protest by Hong-kongers eager to defend the right to free expression, which at least formally still is current there, under the “One Country, Two Systems” promise. But the chilling effect on the publishing industry is already evident, with other bookstores closing or self-censoring their stock, as may have been the goal of the targeted attack.

Tragically, over a year after his kidnapping from Thailand, Gui Minhai alone among the four booksellers continues to be held without trial and without any justification of his apprehension - in disregard of international law, and in obvious contempt of my own country, Sweden, and the European Union, where he is a fellow citizen… read more:

see also
Cambridge University Press backs down over China censorship
Will reinstate articles to which it blocked online access in China in the face of international protests

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