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Why detained dissidents in China ‘confess’ – and why you would too

When I was at school, we were all encouraged to read a book by Arthur Koestler called “Darkness at Noon.” This was an attempt to answer, in a novel, a question on many minds at the time: how were veteran revolutionaries caught up in Stalin’s purges persuaded to confess to capital crimes at their show trials?

Koestler had a highly intelligent and persuasive interrogator convincing his victims that they really were guilty of treason. This was something of an intellectual game. The book carefully avoided mentioning any names – it was set in a dictatorship ruled by “The Party,” which was headed by “Number One” – and one has to suspect that in real life Stalin’s methods were somewhat cruder.

Darkness at noon Arthur Ko

‘Darkness at noon’ by Arthur Koestler. Photo: Wikicommons.

Many of his victims, one imagines, were offered the sort of deal which the Nazis later imposed on Erwin Rommel: if you jump then you jump alone; if we have to push you then your family goes too.

For many years this matter slumbered in the back of my memory as being entirely irrelevant to daily life in England, or Hong Kong. But with the increasing mainlandisation of Hong Kong, the question of how people can be persuaded to produce voluntary-looking confessions looks increasingly relevant.

There are two schools of thought on this topic. One, identified with Donald Rumsfeld and the writers of “24 Hours,” maintains that the best results are obtained by torturing the prisoners until they confess in order to end the ordeal. There is a victim’s diary here.

televised confessions

Televised confessions in China. Photo: Safeguard Defenders.

This idea has traditionally been popular with police, army and clerical interrogators, but it is open to several criticisms. One is that it is a violation of the UN Declaration of Human Rights, so if your country is caught at it some embarrassment will follow. It is also, in most nice countries, against the law.

There is also the practical objection that the quality of the resulting information is poor. You cannot torture someone into telling the truth. In the end, you can only torture him into telling you what you wish to hear.

The other school of thought maintains that better results can be obtained without violence or duress, by an interrogator who forms a relationship with the victim. There is a victim’s eye view of how this works here.

On the face of it, it is difficult to see why a prisoner would form a relationship with a jailer. A certain amount of manipulation is necessary. From a practical point of view, if you are caught up in the system the process goes something like this:

In phase one they will be rough. You will be deprived of sleep, disorientated, and physically abused. This is done for two reasons: there is a hope that at this stage the victim is shocked and confused. Being captured or arrested is alarming and frightening in itself. He or she may, if pushed a bit, collapse completely and comply with his interrogators’ wishes.

Indeed you should seriously consider doing this, if they are not asking for too much. Signing a written confession has been much devalued. Many alert Hongkongers warn their friends before visiting the mainland that any confession they may sign should be disregarded.

For foreign correspondents, the police station visit and confession signing has become a sort of rite of passage. If you haven’t done it after a year or two in the job people will suspect that you are not trying hard enough.

China police

Photo: Wikicommons.

The second reason for giving you a hard time is that this sets a low standard which will allow later interrogators to appear humane and friendly, even though they are, as you know, still your jailers.

The second stage is a bit different. After all, your Chinese police people do not have to worry about the UN Declaration of Human Rights, or indeed about the law. They can do what they like with you. On the other hand, they can’t do much with a written confession these days. News has to be digital. A video report of a confession by a quivering heap of human wreckage is not going to work – visible willingness is required.

So after the rough phase, you will be moved. This is done in a disorientating way. You will be masked or hooded. Nobody will tell you where you are going and if some hint is dropped you will not know whether to believe it. At the end of the trip you will not know if you have moved hundreds of miles or just driven round the block a few times and returned to the cell next door to your old one.

You will have a cell to yourself. It will be padded. These things are not for your benefit. Solitary confinement is stressful and debilitating. The padded walls are to prevent suicide.

prison cell jail

Photo: Pixabay.

Here you will be left to stew for a bit. When interrogations resume you will meet Mr Nice Guy.

Mr N.G. is friendly, sympathetic. He can secure small improvements in your living conditions, and supply snippets of news from the outside world. Your encounters serve two objectives: he needs to establish himself as your only accessible friend in the world, and he needs to discover the hook with which he will draw you into compliance with his wishes.

So some discussion will be devoted to what you miss, or who you worry about. Your anxiety will be subtly encouraged. “Your father was taken to hospital last week but he is fine…,” “I expect your son misses you…”

And then Mr N.G. makes his play: “I can make this go away and get you out of here, but you will have to help me. My boss wants you to make a video…” Of course, he says, nobody else will ever see it. This seems from the outside rather implausible but you desperately want to believe that Mr N.G. is a truthful person with your interests at heart. So maybe you make the video.

This gets you out of prison, but when they play the video on national television it will horrify your friends and associates, which is, of course, the object of the exercise.

It should be clear by now that no blame attaches to people who succumb to this treatment and make the video. Indeed, it could be considered a tribute to the effectiveness of this method that China uses it, despite a long tradition of torture and the complete absence of any safeguards against it. People do what works because it works. I expect it would work on me.

This comparatively non-violent part of the Gulag Archipelago is, however, still an abuse of human rights. Innocence is no protection, nor is having a foreign passport. Staying in Hong Kong works for most of us, for now.

Why detained dissidents in China 'confess' - and why you would too