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Ministry of Truth: A brief history of televised ‘confessions’ in China

On a hot day in July 1967, a hundred thousand people gathered at a sports field at the Beijing Aeronautical and Astronautical Institute to see the “criticise and struggle” session of Peng Dehuai, one of the founding generals of the People’s Republic of China. As Peng’s niece – who was in the audience – later recalled in a memoir, the 69-year-old was put on stage with his hands tied behind him and a written sign declaring his “sins” hanging from his neck.

peng duhuai

General Peng Dehuai publicly shamed in 1967.

Peng was accused of being “three againsts” – against the Communist Party, against Communism and against Chairman Mao Zedong. He was locked up, denounced and paraded in the street. In the decade that followed, hundreds of thousands of others across the nation would experience the same public shaming episode, as the former defence minister did, in a movement known as the Cultural Revolution.

cultural revolution

A public denouncement session during the Cultural Revolution.

Half a century later, memories of the era are distant and many people who were purged have long been rehabilitated. However, “Cultural Revolution-style” public shaming has returned in the updated form of televised “confessions” in China. Since 2013, Chinese state broadcaster CCTV has aired more than a dozen “confessions” of people suspected of wrongdoing. As mainland lawyer Tan Mintao noted in a recent essay published on Wechat, CCTV has become the most powerful court in mainland China. “While suspects’ lawyers are not allowed to meet their clients, CCTV reporters can go and film them confessing… After suspects have confessed on state TV, will prosecutors dare not charge them? Will judges dare not convict them? Will their lawyers dare put up a defence?”

The most recent televised “confession” was made by a Caucasian who worked for a human rights NGO in China. While other foreign citizens have been paraded on CCTV before, Peter Dahlin of Sweden is the first white man to have apologised on CCTV. In light of Dahlin’s case, HKFP takes a look at the history of televised confessions.

In January 2016, Swedish NGO worker Peter Dahlin admitted to financially supporting Chinese human rights lawyers and activists and apologised for “causing harm to the Chinese government and hurting the feelings of the Chinese people.”

In January 2016, mainland-born Hong Kong publisher Gui Minhai, who disappeared in Thailand three months ago, re-appeared in China and admitted to evading a two-year jail term from a drunk driving death 13 years ago.

In August 2015, Caijing magazine journalist Wang Xiaolu admitted to writing a report which “caused market fluctuation.”

In July 2015, Huang Liqun, one of the lawyers at the Beijing Fengrui Law Firm, accuses Zhou Shifeng, head of the law firm and his long-term friend, of running a criminal gang to hype up rights defence cases in order to gain fame and wealth.

In August 2014, Taiwan actor Ko Chen-tung and HK actor Jaycee Chan, son of Jackie Chan, admitted to smoking marijuana in Beijing and letting others smoke marijuana in their flat.

In August 2014, internet celebrity Guo Meimei admitted to running an illegal gambling den in Beijing.

In May 2014, Journalist Gao Yu admitted to sending a classified Communist Party document to an overseas website.

In October 2013, Chen Yongzhou, journalist at New Express Daily, admitted to getting paid to smear Chinese machinery manufacturer Zoomlion by doing investigative reports on the company’s suspected illegal dealings.

In August 2013, Chinese-American angel investor and online celebrity Charles Xue apologised for “reposting and commenting on cases of social injustice without verifying them” on microblogging site Weibo.

In August 2013, British private investigator Peter Humphrey and his American wife Yu Yingzeng admitted to “illegally obtaining citizens’ information.”

In July 2013, GlaxoSmithKline executive Liang Hong admitted to bribing government officials, doctors and medical experts by organising tours for them through the Linjiang International Tour Agency.

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Ministry of Truth: A brief history of televised 'confessions' in China