A new report from a human rights group called Safeguard Defenders exposes China’s practice of extracting forced confessions from imprisoned activists, many of them foreign nationals.
The confessions are allegedly obtained with “threats, torture, and fear,” scripted and staged by the police, and employed as propaganda both inside China and abroad.
The report, titled “Scripted and Staged: Behind the Scenes of China’s Forced TV Confessions,” describes how the authorities control every detail of the confession process, from what the detainees wear to what they say. The lucky prisoners are basically actors in a TV show with exceptionally long and grueling shoots. The unlucky ones are beaten, drugged, threatened with longer jail sentences, intimidated with threats of harm to their families, or told they will be killed if they do not play along.
One man interviewed for the report said he was kept “alone and helpless” in such a “state of fear” that he contemplated suicide. Another said his hair turned white from “the enormous pressure and torture of it all.”
Safeguard Defenders stresses that forced confessions are an element of Chinese foreign policy. Detainees are most often dragged to the confessional video studio when international pressure is brought to bear against China. If allegations of torture are made, the detainee in question is likely to find himself sitting in front of a camera and reading a prepared statement that Chinese police have been taking great care of him. A prisoner held incommunicado might be made to say that he doesn’t want to speak with his family. Foreign nationals are frequently forced to denounce their home countries.
The report notes that at least three of its subjects are foreigners who were “kidnapped by Chinese agents outside China’s borders.”
One foreign detainee held by China for two years is 62-year-old Brit Peter Humphrey, an employee of the GSK pharmaceutical company. In an interview with the UK Sun published on Friday, Humphrey said he was arrested along with his Chinese-born wife; held with 12 other men in a tiny cell devoid of furniture; routinely underfed and deprived of sleep; drugged with sleeping pills to obtain a forced confession; and ultimately released only because the British government prodded the Chinese into admitting he was suffering from prostate cancer. Humphrey added that he believes his cancer became malignant because he was denied treatment while in Chinese custody.
Another purpose of forced confessions is to grease the wheels of China’s authoritarian “justice” system, which rarely fails to convict the accused. Many confessions involve subjects compelled to accuse other detainees, a role Safeguard Defenders describes as a “supporting confessor.”
A great many forced confessions are extracted and televised before the prisoner stands trial for his alleged crimes. Safeguard Defenders suggests that such pre-trial confessions began declining in 2017 due to criticism of the obviously unfair practice from overseas and because the Chinese government developed a preference for videotaped confessions delivered during the trial.
A growing preference for “neutral” confessions in relaxed settings, such as hotel rooms, has also been noticed. Such confessions look more natural and voluntary than the traditional jailhouse grilling.
“China’s televised confessions are much more than simple admissions of guilt,” the report observes. “They often include statements of self-criticism, regret, and accusations against others. Suspects apologize to their families, their fans, and the Chinese government; they warn others not to repeat their mistakes; they plead for mercy and promise not to commit crimes again.”
When it comes to imprisoned human rights activists, China also likes to make them admit to seditious “anti-China” crimes. Beijing loves to dismiss critics of its appalling policies as saboteurs, subversives, and unreasonable malcontents.
Safeguard Defenders argues that Chinese media have grown more preoccupied with spreading Communist and nationalist propaganda under President Xi Jinping, and media companies have become active collaborators with Xi’s government in the business of manufacturing forced confessions. To a dismaying extent, in Safeguard Defenders’ view, this includes Hong Kong-based English-language publications such as the South China Morning Post.
The report further accuses Beijing of using social media tools forbidden to Chinese citizens to influence foreign audiences and establishing partnerships with Western media operations that spread Chinese government propaganda to American and European audiences.
“China’s use of forced televised confessions warrants urgent global attention,” the report concludes. “The practice constitutes a human rights violation not confined to China’s borders. Foreign nationals count among the victims; privately-owned media from outside the mainland have been co-opted into filming and broadcasting them.”
“Media organizations that film, collaborate with police in the staged and scripted process, and broadcast these confessions, whether they be Chinese state media or private outfits, are as culpable as the Chinese state in committing this deceptive, illegal, and human rights violating practice,” Safeguard Defenders declares.