In China, death row entertainment is nothing new


A frame grab from the CCTV broadcast showing convicted murderer Yi Lai being led from a prison cell. (AFP/CCTV)

A fierce debate is raging in China over a state-run channel's decision to air the last hours of four foreign drug smugglers before their executions for killing 13 Chinese fishermen. But the outrage belies a simple reality in China: Executions here are frequent -- and TV stations have treated them as entertainment before.

From 2006 to 2012, China's Henan Province aired a hugely popular TV show called “Interviews Before Execution,” in which death row inmates discussed their crimes and regrets with in-your-face host Ding Yu. The show drew 40 million nightly viewers during its run -- almost half the population of Henan Province, or 1.25 times the number of Americans that watched the Olympic closing ceremonies.

"Interviews Before Execution" favored controversial inmates, like a gay man who murdered his mother and a young couple who killed the boyfriend's grandmother. The interviews could be provocative as well.

"I went to see your brother and sisters. They all know that you are leaving this world. But, sorry, they didn’t want to see you," Ding Yu told one man, according to NBC.

"You're dangerous to society. You're s---," she reportedly said in another episode.

Something of that provocative tone echoed in Friday's controversial broadcast. That program included interviews with police officers, a graphic that read "Kill the Kingpin," and instant analysis from a host of pundits -- what the Post's William Wan called “all the staples of modern current events coverage."

"Some viewers may consider it cruel to ask a criminal to do an interview when they are about to be executed," Ding Yu told the BBC. "On the contrary, they want to be heard."

View the first part of the BBC's documentary about Ding and her show below.

Amnesty International believes China executes “thousands” of people each year -- the most in the world. The organization stopped publishing estimates out of fear they  “grossly underestimate the true number" of executions each year.

Caitlin Dewey runs The Intersect blog, writing about digital and Internet culture. Before joining the Post, she was an associate online editor at Kiplinger’s Personal Finance.
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Caitlin Dewey · March 1, 2013