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Chinese police have filmed dozens of forced confessions, often after torture: report

Chinese police standing in Beijing. (Beijing Patrol/Flickr)
August 13, 2020

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

State media organizations and Chinese state security police have produced dozens of televised forced “confessions” in the years since ruling Chinese Communist Party general secretary Xi Jinping took power, often involving severe duress and torture, according to a recent submission to the United Nations.

A total of 87 televised confessions were identified by the rights NGO Safeguard Defenders between July 2013 and January 2020 in a submission this week to the U.N.

“Many televised confessions are the result of extreme physical or emotional coercion and thus qualify as being obtained through torture,” the group said, adding that it had interviewed 17 victims whose confession had been obtained through methods qualifying as torture, including severe physical torture.

It said as many as 22 had spent up to six months in solitary confinement while the authorities were “investigating” their case, which in itself is a recognized form of torture, according to the U.N. Special Rapporteur.

It said detainees are kept in conditions that create immense stress and feelings of fear, are regularly sleep deprived under lights that are kept switched on 24 hours a day.

They may also undergo hours of interrogation during which they are subjected to beatings, electric batons, restraints and denial of bathroom breaks.

It said Simon Cheng, a former employee of the British Consulate in Hong Kong, was placed under “tremendous duress” during his detention in mainland China after he was intercepted in an international railway terminus in the city.

“[Cheng] was handcuffed and interrogated within a detention center,” the report said. “Secret police coerced him to open his iPhone by grabbing his hair and forcing him to do facial recognition entry.”

He was locked to a “tiger chair” while in detention, and handcuffed, shackled, blindfolded and hooded to the point of having trouble breathing when taken out for interrogation.


UK political asylum

The British government lodged a formal complaint with China over Cheng’s treatment, which it said amounted to torture, and later granted him political asylum.

Told that he could be jailed for decades for subversion or rioting, Cheng was forced to perform a video confession to charge of “soliciting prostitutes.” He said papers relating to his detention had the date fields left blank, so he never knew if or when he would be released.

According to Safeguard Defenders, forced TV confessions are “routinely scripted and staged,” citing interviews with several victims.

The “confessions” were scripted and directed by media professionals as if they were a TV drama, with the director requiring multiple takes if the detainee didn’t produce the desired effect.

Detainees are typically dressed in costume, too, the report said, citing the account of Swedish rights activist Peter Dahlin who was told to shower and put on civilian clothes before the video confession was shot.

Hong Kong bookseller Lam Wing-kee and rights lawyer Wang Yu were also made to change out of their “residential surveillance at a designated location” uniform of orange top and beige sweatpants and into civilian clothing for their “confessions,” it said.

“Detainees are routinely told what to say during the confession. Several methods are used, including learning lines [and] reading from a script,” it said.

“The recordings are directed by the security agency. Officers tell suspects how to deliver their lines and multiple retakes are made until they are satisfied,” the report said, adding that victims are also ordered to weep on camera in some cases.


Uyghurs, foreign nationals

Footage is then edited to ensure that none of the crueler details are visible. Former China-based investigator Peter Humphrey was shown in his confession tape in head-and-shoulders close-up, masking the fact that he was handcuffed, locked into a chair and sitting in a cage.

Around 60 percent of forced TV confessions are forced from rights activists, dissidents, journalists and lawyers, while the remainder are accused of a wide variety of crimes, including ethnic Uyghurs accused of “terrorism,” and other suspects accused of financial crimes, drug-related offenses and homicide.

Nine of the 87 were Uyghurs while 15 were nationals of countries other than China.

As well as being broadcast on state TV in China, several “confessions” were broadcast on China’s overseas Communist Party TV channels, including CGTN/CCTV-9 in English and CCTV-4 in Chinese, or by the pro-Beijing Hong Kong media, Safeguard Defenders said.

British media regulator Ofcom last month upheld a complaint from Humphrey against CGTN for treating him unfairly and infringing his privacy when it filmed his “confession.” The broadcaster could now face a ban, as the interview was broadcast in the UK.

“We have upheld Peter Humphrey’s complaint about programmes broadcast on CCTV News, since renamed CGTN, after we found that he was unfairly treated, and his privacy was unwarrantably infringed,” an Ofcom spokesperson said.

“Among other things, the licensee failed to obtain Mr Humphrey’s informed consent to take part in the interviews. And the programmes left out facts that put the reliability of his alleged confession into serious doubt.”

Ofcom requires channels licensed to broadcast in the UK to enforce privacy and fairness.

Yaqiu Wang, a China researcher for the New York-based group Human Rights Watch (HRW), said the ruling was a breakthrough for campaigners seeking to highlight China’s use of forced TV “confessions.”

“More and more foreign governments have begun to pay attention to the situation in China now,” Wang told RFA.

“It is true that forced television confessions, torture, and enforced disappearance have always been carried out (in China), but Ofcom’s ruling indicates that this matter has come to the attention of authorities overseas,” she said.