Why China is turning to 'trial by television' in sensitive cases

In a trend that alarms those pushing for more rule of law, six men have confessed to crimes on national TV. A journalist last week apologized for 'incorrect reports' about corruption.

China Central Television via Reuters TV/REUTERS
Journalist Chen Yongzhou gives his confession in a detention room at the Changsha Public Security Bureau detention center in Changsha City, Hunan Province, China, in this still image taken from China Central Television (CCTV) video shot on October 25, 2013.

Last month, Chinese police interrogators offered investigative reporter Liu Hu a deal.

“They told him that if he confessed his crime on TV he would be released,” says Mr. Liu’s lawyer, Zhou Ze.

Liu, refusing to acknowledge that his corruption allegations against a senior official were false, also refused to say publicly that he was guilty of defamation. The New Express reporter was formally arrested a month ago and is now awaiting trial.

That is the price Liu is paying for bucking a new police trend that defense lawyers here say makes a mockery of Chinese criminal procedure law. The police have persuaded at least six men accused of wrongdoing  – but not officially charged with anything – to appear on national television over the past three months to confess their “crimes.”

“This is a step backward for China,” says Li Fangping, a prominent lawyer. “This is law enforcement by political campaign; it is a political matter, not a legal one.”

The latest contrite figure to appear on a national television newscast in handcuffs, his head shaven, dressed in a yellow prison uniform, was one of Liu’s fellow reporters on New Express, a daily in the southern city of Guangzhou. On Saturday evening, hanging his head, Chen Yongzhou, told the camera “I am willing to admit my guilt and to show repentance.”

Mr. Chen had made a stir with a series of articles alleging financial wrongdoing at Zoomlion, a partly state-owned construction company. When he was arrested last week, accused of defamation, Chen's newspaper stood up for him vociferously, publishing two front-page editorials asking for his release

In its Sunday edition, though, New Express published a brief apology, saying that Chen had written “a lot of incorrect reports and took money.”

How sincere Chen’s confession was, however, is open to doubt. “People in his situation have been deprived of their freedom. They can only do what they are told to do,” says Mr. Zhou.

Others who have been humiliated in public since August include:

“The authorities are using TV confessions as a way of establishing a public presumption of guilt when the investigation has barely started,” says Eva Pils, a professor of law at China University of Hong Kong. “It runs completely counter to the spirit of the rule of law and to the liberal principles of criminal justice reforms in the post-Mao era.”

“The point of the confessions is to destroy the suspect’s public image,” adds Zhou. “It is not proper.”

The power of theater

Lawyers here recall that less than 30 years ago, the police across China used to parade suspects in the back of open-bed trucks before their trials. The TV appearances, says lawyer Li, “are even worse, because now millions of people see their faces.”

The public confessions are legal, however, according to Hong Daode a professor at the China University of Political Science and Law, since the police are under no obligation to ask the suspect’s permission before releasing videotape of interrogations to the media.

And if the police want to persuade a suspect to confess, they are allowed to offer him a more lenient sentence, says Prof. Hong.

None of the six men whose confessions were filmed and broadcast, however, have yet been charged with any crime, though not all have been released yet, either. 

That, say some Chinese lawyers, suggests that if a suspect agrees to make a public confession, the police in some cases will agree not to press charges. 

“None of these cases has yet gone to court, nor even as far as the prosecutor’s office,” points out Li. “They are still police matters, and I do not think we will see trials.”

Any offer to drop charges in return for a TV confession “would be absolutely illegal,” says Hong, since it would be tantamount to coercing a suspect into making the statement.

Such coercion is forbidden in the new criminal procedure law that came into force on Jan 1. this year.

“The spirit of the new rules is clear; the presumption of innocence has to be maintained,” says Prof. Pils. “But this is evidence of a return to the use of criminal cases where the trial serves only theatrical purposes.” 

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