That's exactly what happened on Chinese television Sunday night.
Months after disappearing from a 17th-floor condominium overlooking the Gulf of Thailand, one of five missing Hong Kong booksellers reappeared Sunday evening to issue a "confession." Footage aired on China's state broadcaster, CCTV, showed Gui Minhai, 51, describing how he made the "choice" to leave Thailand and return to China to face charges related to a—genuinely awful—2003 crash.
In the broadcast, Gui, whose exact whereabouts are unknown, says that he does not want help from the Swedish embassy.
"Even though I am a Swedish national, I truly feel that I am still Chinese and my roots are still in China," he said, "So I hope that the Swedish side would respect my personal choice, rights and privacy and let me solve my own problems."
Nor does the publisher of books about China's elite want attention from the press: "I do not want anyone or any institution to get involved or get in the way of my returning, nor do I want any malicious media hype," he told the cameras.
Not mentioned: The four other men—his colleagues—who have disappeared from Thailand and Hong Kong in the run-up to the publication of a book about President Xi Jinping, making headlines around the world and raising questions about how China's vast security apparatus operates across borders.
In case there was any doubt that the scene was scripted, then edited, Gui switched shirts minutes in to barring his soul:
If the broadcast was an effort to distract people from the bookseller story—to provide an alternative theory of the case—it didn't work, said William Nee, a Hong Kong-based China researcher at Amnesty International.
"Gui Minhai’s confession to a crime that occurred eleven years ago – however factual – seems like an unconvincing way to divert the public’s attention from many other important issues,” he said.
The narrative seems messy and incoherent, blending possible fact with what seems like outright fiction. It feels illogical, absurd even.
But that may be the point. Televised confessions don't tend to trade in logic, or truth. They trade in fear.
What happened on CCTV last night was terrifying precisely because it was so far-fetched, so unbelievable.
Gui made his living selling books about China's ruling elite. Now the ruling elite seems to be sending a message to people like him: We control the story. And if you question it, we will get to you, wherever you are.
And then put you on television—and make you sing.
Gu Jinglu reported from Beijing.