China Forces Dissidents to Confess on TV

Beijing bullies, abducts, and tortures those who are imagined as its foes. But is anyone buying the party’s narrative?

HONG KONG — China feels hurt. China feels offended. China feels sad.

Keep your eyes on any screen in China, and that’s one of the repeating messages you’ll see.

There will be practically no mention about a real estate bubble, stock market crashes, yuan rumbles, or capital outflow. Nor will there be much talk about the dreadful quality of air, cancer villages, or how smoking might be killing an unreasonable share of young men. Rather, you’ll see protagonists dressed in drab colors, “confessing” to crimes they committed.

Almost all of them say they’re sorry for hurting the feelings of the Chinese nation.

Who knew a nation of 1.4 billion was so fragile?

In an in-depth profile with The Atlantic, President Obama said, “We have more to fear from a weakened, threatened China than a successful, rising China.” In a mind-boggling way, Beijing attempts to portray itself as both—a victim of international meddling and foreign influence eating at the integrity of Communist Party rule, but also an economic powerhouse with rapidly developing military capabilities. To make the first point, certain individuals have been forced to wear the badge of enemies of the state.

There may be people pushing back even from within. As The Washington Post reported this week, an open, if anonymous, letter to Chinese President Xi Jinping popped up on the government-linked Wujie News site in the pre-dawn hours of March 4 only to be quickly taken down. But a copy discovered as a cached version blasted Xi for “abandoning the principle of collective leadership,” for concentrating power in his own hands and “indulging” flatterers. Xi’s declaration that the press should serve the party, not the people “dismayed the whole nation,” it charges, the Post reported.

Among those who have paid the price for alleged subversion in one form or another, five booksellers based in Hong Kong were whisked away to secret detention at different times and locations starting from last October. One resurfaced in January with an unlikely story of how he ended up in Mainland China after disappearing from his holiday loft in Thailand. His “confession” video has since been picked apart as a montage of clips spliced together to weave a narrative pushed by the state.

Las July police detained over 130 Chinese lawyers and their staffs. Although many were released quickly, at least 14 have been formally charged with “state subversion” after six months of secret detention.

A French journalist, Ursula Gauthier, was expelled for doing her job in Xinjiang, where the local Uighur population faces severe abuses. Gauthier received death threats after her report was published, and the Chinese Foreign Ministry wanted her to apologize for her “wrongdoings.” Then a ministry spokesman said her work “openly supports terrorist activity, the killing of innocents, and has outraged the Chinese public.”

A Swedish human-rights activist named Peter Dahlin was detained in January as he was about to board a plane in Beijing. The charge was “inciting opposition to the government.” Xinhua news agency claimed Dahlin’s organization, which provides aid to human-rights lawyers in China, was “encouraging the masses to oppose the government,” although the Chinese Communist Party has not indicated which part of Dahlin’s work had broken Chinese law, merely stating that he “collected negative information about China and distorted it … to provide so-called China human rights reports.” Dahlin too has appeared in public broadcasts, his words peppered with phrases so loved by the Party.

Some of Dahlin’s former colleagues in China also appeared in the video, describing their recent revelations that Dahlin’s group is an anti-China organization with the goal of setting up an “outpost” or “bridgehead” so that scouts can gather information for foreign powers, which will then be used in criticisms of China on the world stage, or economic and political attacks on the People’s Republic.

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It is convenient that every individual in a televised confession had somehow come to realize his transgressions after mysterious disappearances.

It is notable that they all use the same language—that they are working for “anti-China forces,” that they are sorry for their actions which hurt the feelings of the Chinese people, that their original goals threatened national security.

It is incredible that all of these statements are recorded and aired before a trial.

The CCP’s fetish for stifling critics isn’t something new, but it is being executed with renewed vigor. Chinese President Xi, or whoever polishes his speeches, calls it a “public opinion struggle,” and state media has made it their mission to churn out “positive propaganda.” These are unsettling phrases that evoke the dark days of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution.

In Xi’s “struggle,” anyone who deviates from the Party-sanctioned narrative is quickly gagged, perhaps sucked into a black hole, where those unfortunate enough to be caught in the crosshairs of Xi and his faction face imprisonment, and even torture.

On the other end, Beijing’s flood of “positive propaganda” is surreal. Xi Dada, or “Uncle Xi,” as fans of the Chinese president call him, is handsome, bold, decisive, and “cute.” His cartoon self is a man of the people, armed with a spiked club in his hunt for tigers—high-level officials who are snagged in his anti-corruption campaign. To push the CCP’s latest five-year plan, an animated David Bowie lookalike was employed. One wonders: Are Chinese leaders truly so out of touch that they believe outsiders buy into these weak attempts of masturbatory self-regard?

Despite centralized governance, the Chinese Communist Party is not monolithic. Officials who are not part of Xi’s faction have found themselves under the scrutiny of Wang Qishan, the Chinese president’s anti-graft tsar. In 2014, a CCP official snagged in Xi’s anti-corruption campaign told AP that during his 184 days of detention, he was beaten, force-fed excrement, and had his thigh bone snapped by interrogators. Before he was released, he had to sign a false confession document.

Xi Jinping said he will make China a place where “nobody dares to be corrupt.” He and his faction have made other promises, like resolving the country’s incredibly nasty environmental problems and ensuring continued economic growth.

But citizens in China aren’t so confident that their leaders will follow through. It seems like no one was held responsible after the deadly explosions that occurred in Tianjin last August. The output of steel mills rust away as factories across the country shut down. State-imposed stock market circuit-breakers couldn’t stop investors from selling off their shares, and the measure was such a failure that it had to be suspended four days after its introduction. Forty billion dollars in stimulus, slashed rates, and forcing large shareholders to hold on to their investments couldn’t stop the stock market from crashing. Labor protests plague industrial hubs in numbers higher than ever before, with no official response other than police crackdowns.

It takes a special brand of cynicism to govern a nation of 1.4 billion but completely write off the collective intelligence of that population, their needs and wants, and their hopes. Given what the CCP is doing under Xi’s leadership, there is now a new measure of success in China: How quickly can you move your money out of the country and settle elsewhere, like California, Switzerland, or Australia?

Xi and his advisers face many challenges in their governance. China is evolving economically, and pain is part of the process. The draconian, heavy-handed treatment of perceived foes of the state, and the subsequent assumption that the world will believe fantastical tales of criminal “confession,” only alienates the Party from reality. Not even their captive audience at home believes those stories.

Paranoia and secret detentions continue, now codified and commonplace. Threats, isolation, and torture might convince some to take the blame, but that doesn’t dissipate China’s litany of problems. The latest round of repression may not involve rifles, soldiers, and tanks creeping down capital boulevards, but make no mistake—Xi has created a system that is much more aggressive, much more damaging to his own nation. The bullying, disappearances, and torture are unlikely to stop anytime soon.