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Scripted and staged: Behind the scenes of China's forced TV confessions

Civil rights Police power Human rights International criminal justice Propaganda China

The use of televised confessions of detainees by the Chinese state came to the world’s attention in July 2013 when the first high-profile confession was aired: Liang Hong, a top executive for British pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline in China, appeared on state broadcaster CCTV and confessed to bribery. Despite violating both domestic law on the right to a fair trial and many international human rights protections, since then scores of highprofile forced confessions, including many by foreign nationals, have been broadcast on Chinese state television and, in some cases, by Hong Kong media.

This report analyses the recordings of 45 confessions broadcast between 2013 and 2018 and includes interviews with a dozen people or members of their family, who Chinese police had made, or had tried to make, give a confession on camera. These confessions are made before trial and often even before formal arrest. This report will show that China’s televised confessions are routinely forced and extracted through threats, torture, and fear; that police routinely dictate and direct the confessions; and that there is strong evidence that in certain cases they are used as tools of propaganda for both domestic audiences and as part of China’s foreign policy.

Every single interviewee for this study said their interrogators had forced them to confess. Further, the fact that it would be broadcast on television was generally concealed from them. In one of the worst cases of deception, British investigator Peter Humphrey had agreed to meet with newspaper reporters only but was then drugged and locked into a cage for state television to film a confession. Police regularly used threats (both towards the detainees as well as against their family members) and physical and mental torture to produce a state of fear in order to coerce the confession. Of the 37 people who appeared in televised confessions analysed in this study, five of them publicly retracted their confession and many others have done so anonymously to researchers working on Scripted and Staged.

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