Chen Guangcheng, a visiting scholar at Catholic University and founder of the Chen Guangcheng Foundation, is author of “The Barefoot Lawyer: A Blind Man’s Fight for Justice and Freedom in China.”
While Chinese media giants have made news by acquiring significant Hollywood assets over the past few months, the Chinese Communist Party has been busily producing its own video content, though the stiffness of the acting and repetitive dialogue would no doubt make any seasoned director shudder. From finance professionals forced to “apologize” for their attempts at accurate reporting on the country’s economic slowdown to the chilling “confession” this week of human rights lawyer Wang Yu, the Communist Party is clearly trying to cover up the bitter truth of its brutal rule — and, at the same time, assuage its unease and fear — by broadcasting a series of preposterous confessions on state media platforms.
The party intends these videos to both foment public animosity toward human rights advocates and intimidate other activists. Indeed, behind the well-rehearsed veneer of these propaganda set pieces lie Mao-era tactics for extracting public confessions through coercion, humiliation and torture. Given the personal courage and determination of many of those who appear in these videos, it is sobering to imagine what they might have endured before making their statements, the content of which commonly tears apart the very fabric of their beliefs and identities as known to family and friends over a lifetime.
Wang, one of the first to be detained in the crackdown on human rights lawyers and activists that began in July 2015, is known for her defense in sensitive human rights cases. Taking on these issues in Chinese court is no casual act: In addition to the sharpest legal skills, it requires a strength of character and a sense of moral integrity that are not easily shaken. Yet in her Aug. 1 video “confession,” Wang rips apart her entire career of human rights law. Speaking in mellifluous tones while sitting underneath a tree, she denounces her former colleagues and refuses to accept a prestigious human rights prize awarded to her by the American Bar Association.
Both from my own experience and from speaking with other activists who have been held in detention, I know that the authorities’ attempts at extracting confessions usually begin with threats: threats to one’s ability to work (confiscating a license to practice law, for instance) or threats to one’s family or loved ones. In the latter case, they might start by threatening to prevent a child from attending school or getting a job, though suggestions of physical harm are not off the table.
If prisoners do not bow under this psychological pressure, often delivered over days or weeks while the victims are tied to a chair, the authorities might move to physical torture, including chaining detainees to a “tiger bench” in excruciating positions for days and sometimes weeks, applying electric shocks to their genitals, jolting and beating them with electric police batons, or placing them in long solitary confinement, to name a few. Some activists have been so traumatized as to be unable to speak after being released from detention. And in the most horrific cases — such as those of Cao Shunli, Tenzin Delek Rinpoche and Li Wangyang, people who have devoted their lives to improving their country — only bodies have come out, battered and bruised, with their families left to search in vain for answers.
To a certain extent, these videos are effective in seeding doubt among those they target. When you see a friend on national TV denouncing a long, collaborative work relationship, it can be hard to stay focused on the reality behind the scene. The online chatter in China debates the veracity of the statements, the words and phrases analyzed for clues to the confessor’s true opinion. In the process, trust can be chipped away, as old alliances are called into question. This is precisely what the regime seeks: to divide, and thus conquer and destroy, the growing movement among the Chinese people to demand their rights.
But it seems that the Communist Party itself is growing concerned that the public no longer entirely buys its video series. In an apparent attempt to lend it credibility, Wang’s confession appeared not on state TV, as earlier confessional videos featuring journalist Gao Yu and the Hong Kong booksellers did, but on purportedly independent Hong Kong news platforms. This suggests that the growing ability of people to communicate on vibrant social media in China is undermining the effectiveness of the party’s propaganda mouthpieces, forcing the regime to turn to more reputable foreign media if it wants anyone to believe what it says.
This is why, despite the attention and some confusion caused by confessional videos, they also reveal unease in the party, which is clearly aware that the Chinese people are no longer easily duped. The people are awakening to their rights, and the credibility of state media is evaporating.
So how, in the end, should we think about videos such as Wang Yu’s? On the one hand, it is clear that the Chinese Communist Party is truly concerned about foreign attention to China’s human rights situation. On the other hand, Wang herself answered the question in her “testimony,” in which she curiously mimics China’s official reaction to the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s verdict on the South China Sea case: “I do not recognize, I do not approve and I do not accept.”
It doesn’t matter what the Chinese Communist Party forces its captives to say. If someone is still in the custody of the party, we should “not recognize, not approve and not accept.” We should instead censure the party for its shameless abuse of power. In this way, the party’s efforts will grow increasingly fruitless, and it will have only itself to blame.