Un­pack­ing China's con­fes­sion videos

The Myanmar Times - - Front Page - CHEN GUANGCHENG news­room@mm­times.com

WHILE Chi­nese me­dia giants have made news by ac­quir­ing sig­nif­i­cant Hol­ly­wood as­sets over the past few months, the Chi­nese Com­mu­nist Party has been busily pro­duc­ing its own video con­tent, though the stiff­ness of the act­ing and repet­i­tive di­a­logue would no doubt make any sea­soned di­rec­tor shud­der. From fi­nance pro­fes­sion­als forced to “apologise” for their at­tempts at ac­cu­rate re­port­ing on the coun­try’s eco­nomic slow­down to the chill­ing “con­fes­sion” this last week of hu­man rights lawyer Wang Yu, the Com­mu­nist Party is clearly try­ing to cover up the bit­ter truth of its bru­tal rule – and, at the same time, as­suage its un­ease and fear – by broad­cast­ing a series of pre­pos­ter­ous con­fes­sions on state me­dia plat­forms.

The party in­tends these videos to both fo­ment public an­i­mos­ity to­ward hu­man rights ad­vo­cates and in­tim­i­date other ac­tivists. In­deed, be­hind the well-re­hearsed ve­neer of these pro­pa­ganda set pieces lie Mao-era tac­tics for ex­tract­ing public con­fes­sions through co­er­cion, hu­mil­i­a­tion and tor­ture. Given the per­sonal courage and de­ter­mi­na­tion of many of those who ap­pear in these videos, it is sober­ing to imag­ine what they might have en­dured be­fore mak­ing their state­ments, the con­tent of which com­monly tears apart the very fab­ric of their be­liefs and iden­ti­ties as known to fam­ily and friends over a life­time.

Wang, one of the first to be de­tained in the crack­down on hu­man rights lawyers and ac­tivists that be­gan in July 2015, is known for her de­fense in sen­si­tive hu­man rights cases. Tak­ing on these is­sues in Chi­nese court is no ca­sual act: In ad­di­tion to the sharpest le­gal skills, it re­quires a strength of char­ac­ter and a sense of moral in­tegrity that are not eas­ily shaken. Yet in her Au­gust 1 video “con­fes­sion”, Wang rips apart her en­tire ca­reer of hu­man rights law. Speak­ing in mel­liflu­ous tones while sit­ting un­der­neath a tree, she denounces her for­mer col­leagues and re­fuses to ac­cept a pres­ti­gious hu­man rights prize awarded to her by the Amer­i­can Bar As­so­ci­a­tion.

Both from my own ex­pe­ri­ence and from speak­ing with other ac­tivists who have been held in de­ten­tion, I know that the au­thor­i­ties’ at­tempts at ex­tract­ing con­fes­sions usu­ally be­gin with threats: threats to one’s abil­ity to work (con­fis­cat­ing a li­cence to prac­tice law, for in­stance) or threats to one’s fam­ily or loved ones. In the lat­ter case, they might start by threat­en­ing to pre­vent a child from at­tend­ing school or get­ting a job, though sugges­tions of phys­i­cal harm are not off the ta­ble.

If pris­on­ers do not bow un­der this psy­cho­log­i­cal pres­sure, of­ten de­liv­ered over days or weeks while the vic­tims are tied to a chair, the au­thor­i­ties might move to phys­i­cal tor­ture, in­clud­ing chain­ing de­tainees to a “tiger bench” in ex­cru­ci­at­ing po­si­tions for days and some­times weeks, ap­ply­ing elec­tric shocks to their gen­i­tals, jolt­ing and beat­ing them with elec­tric po­lice ba­tons, or plac­ing them in long soli­tary con­fine­ment, to name a few. Some ac­tivists have been so trau­ma­tised as to be un­able to speak af­ter be­ing re­leased from de­ten­tion. And in the most hor­rific cases – such as those of Cao Shunli, Ten­zin Delek Rin­poche and Li Wangyang, peo­ple who have de­voted their lives to im­prov­ing their coun­try – only bod­ies have come out, bat­tered and bruised, with their fam­i­lies left to search in vain for an­swers.

To a cer­tain ex­tent, these videos are ef­fec­tive in seed­ing doubt among those they tar­get. When you see a friend on na­tional TV de­nounc­ing a long, col­lab­o­ra­tive work re­la­tion­ship, it can be hard to stay fo­cused on the re­al­ity be­hind the scene. The on­line chat­ter in China de­bates the ve­rac­ity of the state­ments, the words and phrases an­a­lysed for clues to the con­fes­sor’s true opin­ion. In the process, trust can be chipped away, as old al­liances are called into ques­tion. This is pre­cisely what the regime seeks: to di­vide, and thus con­quer and de­stroy, the grow­ing move­ment among the Chi­nese peo­ple to de­mand their rights.

But it seems that the Com­mu­nist Party it­self is grow­ing con­cerned that the public no longer en­tirely buys its video series. In an ap­par­ent at­tempt to lend it cred­i­bil­ity, Wang’s con­fes­sion ap­peared not on state TV, as ear­lier con­fes­sional videos fea­tur­ing jour­nal­ist Gao Yu and the Hong Kong book­sellers did, but on pur­port­edly in­de­pen­dent Hong Kong news plat­forms. This sug­gests that the grow­ing abil­ity of peo­ple to com­mu­ni­cate on vi­brant so­cial me­dia in China is un­der­min­ing the ef­fec­tive­ness of the party’s pro­pa­ganda mouth­pieces, forc­ing the regime to turn to more rep­utable for­eign me­dia if it wants any­one to be­lieve what it says.

This is why, de­spite the at­ten­tion and some con­fu­sion caused by con­fes­sional videos, they also re­veal un­ease in the party, which is clearly aware that the Chi­nese peo­ple are no longer eas­ily duped. The peo­ple are awak­en­ing to their rights, and the cred­i­bil­ity of state me­dia is evap­o­rat­ing.

So how, in the end, should we think about videos such as Wang Yu’s? On the one hand, it is clear that the Chi­nese Com­mu­nist Party is truly con­cerned about for­eign at­ten­tion to China’s hu­man rights sit­u­a­tion. On the other hand, Wang her­self an­swered the ques­tion in her “tes­ti­mony”, in which she cu­ri­ously mim­ics China’s of­fi­cial re­ac­tion to the Per­ma­nent Court of Ar­bi­tra­tion’s ver­dict on the South China Sea case: “I do not recog­nise, I do not ap­prove and I do not ac­cept.”

It doesn’t mat­ter what the Chi­nese Com­mu­nist Party forces its cap­tives to say. If some­one is still in the cus­tody of the party, we should “not recog­nise, not ap­prove and not ac­cept”. We should in­stead cen­sure the party for its shame­less abuse of power. In this way, the party’s ef­forts will grow in­creas­ingly fruit­less, and it will have only it­self to blame.

– The Wash­ing­ton Post

Chen Guangcheng, a vis­it­ing scholar at Catholic Univer­sity and founder of the Chen Guangcheng Foun­da­tion, is au­thor of

Photo: EPA

Hao Yun­hong, di­rec­tor of China’s over­seas non-gov­ern­men­tal or­gan­i­sa­tions depart­ment within the Min­istry of Public Se­cu­rity, is seen on a video cam­era dur­ing a press con­fer­ence in Beijing on April 28.

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