Chinese television audiences have had new programming in recent weeks. The broadcasts look like part of the “true crime” genre. They are just as scripted, but there is nothing entertaining about them. In fact, the theater is anything but — the broadcasts are nationally televised confessions of individuals whose real “crime” seems to be offending the government. This is not a new phenomenon — show trials are a staple of the communist system — and China has in recent years increasingly used public confessions to shame individuals or silence challenges to its rule. Nevertheless, it is a troubling indication of how far the government will go to silence any opposition and the degree to which the law is elastic in China.
In the last two weeks, two men, both Swedish nationals, have been shown on TV confessing to crimes. In the first, Gui Minhai announced that he had turned himself into Chinese authorities to accept punishment for his alleged involvement in a fatal hit-and-run accident more than a decade ago that had prompted him to flee the country. A week later, Peter Dahlin, the founder of Chinese Urgent Action Working Group, a nongovernmental organization that trains human rights lawyers, told a national audience that he had “violated Chinese law” and “caused harm to the Chinese government. I’ve hurt the feelings of the Chinese people.”
The circumstances surrounding both confessions raise disturbing questions. Gui writes and publishes sensational books about Chinese politics — the next one was reportedly about President Xi Jinping’s love life — that are banned in China. He disappeared from his Thailand vacation home months ago, only to surface this month on TV, claiming that the guilt from the accident was overwhelming, that he missed his family in China, and urged all who watched the video — including the Swedish authorities — to accept his statement at face value.
This would mean disregarding the fact that he changed shirts during the taping of the confession, ignoring that four other people who worked with or for Gui at his publishing company in Hong Kong have disappeared — one of whom is reportedly also in China and has urged his wife not to make a fuss — and overlooking the fact that his punishment was a suspended sentence, little reason for feeling “tortured, psychologically” and compelled to return to China. His claim that he is first a Chinese citizen — despite having a Swedish passport — is a disturbing insight into how the Chinese authorities think about such cases; indications that Gui, along with others, may have been forcibly returned — read: kidnapped — to China demonstrate equally offensive thinking about sovereignty.
Dahlin’s “crime” appears to be training lawyers to fight human rights abuses, or what the Chinese authorities call “deliberately aggravating disputes and instigating public-government confrontations to create mass incidents.” Members of a high-profile law firm and other lawyers who challenge human rights violations were arrested in a roundup last July. He was also charged with “jeopardizing national security,” apparently a result of writing memos on China’s human rights situation that also summarized how his organization’s money was spent. Dahlin was reportedly released and deported by the Chinese authorities this week.
The Dahlin case is part of a larger campaign against civil society groups and has alarm bells ringing among those working in this field. The mass arrest of the lawyers is one piece of this effort, as is new legislation to tightly restrict activities of foreign NGOs working in China. Self-censorship is a likely outcome, and one that is apparently desired by the Chinese authorities. Worse, it is not clear where the red line for such behavior can be drawn, nor to whom it applies: Academics, business people and journalists could be — and in some cases, have been — punished for doing their jobs.
Countering this egregious misbehavior will not be easy. The Chinese authorities plainly see civil society groups that operate with independence as a threat. Cutting off support or withdrawing from the country will punish those they assist, and the Chinese government will only be too glad to see such irritants banished. The Stockholm government should vigorously assert its right to see its citizens and protect them, but Gui and his family could be punished by such action. Gui’s plea to be left alone may be sincere, given the consequences of intervention.
Journalist advocacy groups have called for sanctions against CCTV and the Xinhua News Agency for complicity in these campaigns, noting that the European Union took action against Iranian media officials for similar behavior. Denunciation is the very least that should be done. But governments, like the foreign businesses that complain about unfair treatment in China, worry that they can’t afford to antagonize Beijing. The business opportunities are too great and typically the individual at the heart of the dispute has done something to justify Chinese ire. Yet, as in all such cases, the failure to penalize China for its disregard of human rights and the rule of law means that this behavior will continue.