Image via CCTV on YouTube
Whether it's the costume dramas with bad production values, the scrubbed and censored documentaries, or the scripted talk shows, Chinese television can be really awful. After the millionth rehash of The Monkey King or Romance of the Three Kingdoms, it's no wonder that producers at CCTV, China's state-run television broadcaster, are turning to other sources for inspiration. Taking a page from their American counterparts, reality shows have become a hit in China too. One particular variation of reality TV is extremely popular: prison confessions.
Naw Kham was a Burmese rebel turned drug kingpin. He was so effective in his land grabs and so loved by the populace of the Golden Triangle, where opium and heroin supported local livelihoods, that the Chinese authorities considered dropping a bomb from a drone to kill him. He earned the sting of Chinese public opinion when he killed a crew of Chinese sailors (who were probably drug mules working for one of Naw Kham's rivals). When he was finally captured, his trial was televised. The camera didn't pan away from him until he was led away to be executed by lethal injection.
Viewers at home, loved it, talked about it, and blogged about it, posting comments like the one above from China.com, which translates to, "Naw Kham needs to die. Thirteen Chinese sailors [who were killed in the Mekong River Massacre] can't rest in peace." The Naw Kham sensation struck such a chord that it paved the way for a new wave of popular television broadcasts.
One year ago, VICE reported on Eastern Lightning, a quasi-Christian cult in China with violent teachings and a mandate to defeat "the Great Red Dragon" (read: the Communist Party of China). In late May, Zhang Lidong, a member of Eastern Lightning, beat a woman to death in a McDonald's in eastern China, prompting national outrage as the cell-phone video of the incident went viral. Within days, Zhang, along with four other members of the cult who were present at the beating, were apprehended by Chinese law enforcement. Zhang was put in front of a camera so he could confess his crimes, even though he went on delirious rants about his victim being a "demon and evil spirit." His trial, however, did not commence until August 21.
It's not just hard criminals who are put on TV while wearing orange prison vests. Guo Meimei was an online sensation, and has been dubbed China's Paris Hilton. She grabbed hold of national attention in 2011 when she uploaded pictures of her Maserati and Lamborghini, even though she claimed to be a manager of the Red Cross Society of China (RCSC). It was later revealed that she was not actually employed by RCSC, but was the mistress of a man whose business was a fundraising partner of the organization. As rumors of embezzlement were afloat, donations to RCSC plummeted, severely affecting the aid work that they do in the earthquake-prone Sichuan province, as well as relief provided in other areas suffering from drought or flooding. Unbothered that her vanity was stemming the flow of much-needed aid to families who have lost all their possessions and homes, Guo continued to post pictures of beds of cash and hundreds of thousands of dollars in casino chips used in her high stakes gambling in Macau.
Last month, Guo Meimei was arrested for placing illegal bets during the FIFA World Cup. She too appeared on air with a confession, again without a trial. On national television, she talked about her gambling and said that she made money by charging men to spend the night with them, never taking less than $17,000 per encounter.
The internet lit up with replies, like the bloodthirsty comment below from Baidu, which translates to, "I strongly suggest that we execute this nation-crumbling bitch after she confesses. If she doesn't go, it will be disastrous. The key is that she sets an example for vain women."
Individuals who hit the Chinese government's political nerves are given the same treatment. Gao Yu is a journalist, press freedom advocate, and political analyst. As June 4 approached, marking the 25th anniversary of the Tianamen Square Massacre, she vanished. Having previously spent a total of seven years in jail for her writing—the charge was "publishing state secrets"—friends of the 70-year-old Gao knew that she was in police custody. Shortly after her disappearance, Gao Yu was seen on CCTV, faced blurred out but her identity revealed. She "confessed" that her actions "harmed the national interest," and that her actions were very wrong, though it is unclear what exactly she did was wrong. On air, she pleaded guilty and said she "accepts her lesson." None of those statements reflect decades of democracy and press freedom advocacy, or the beliefs of a UNESCO World Press Freedom Prize laureate.
Many other high profile inmates have been put on screen before their trials, all admitting to crimes and repenting their sins. Some have even been shown with marks on their bodies, prompting allegations of coercion and torture.
This type of public confession has its roots in a tumultuous period of modern China. When Mao was leading the country into economic ruin, struggle sessions were common. At these sessions, political rivals and capitalist roaders were publicly humiliated, berated, and abused before crowds of up to 100,000 until they denounced their capitalist ways, at times leading to execution. The struggle sessions were among the ugliest, most reprehensible things that happened to China under Mao, and sowed the seeds of unquestioning reverence that still plague the population today.
Fast forward to 2013, when Xi Jinping assumed the Chinese presidency. He barreled ahead in his fight against corruption, initiating a "criticism and self-criticism" campaign that targets government officials who took bribes, hunting both "tigers and flies" within the ranks of the Chinese Communist Party. Taking down high profile criminals and rivals, and having them publicly denounce their old ways, also fits the campaign's designs. At the same time, state media has been promoting Xi's image more aggressively than any other leader since Mao. The cult of personality is back in vogue, and a strongman leader needs diversions from real problems like unsafe food, impossible urban real estate prices, and a rapidly growing wealth gap.
Last year, the Chinese Supreme Court ruled against extracting confessions through torture, but these broadcasts are telling a different story. Scapegoating is a common tactic of authoritarian regimes, but the blend of high profile confessions and repentance is potent. There is much power contained in the image of a well-known, notorious, hateable person placed in handcuffs, locked behind bars, denouncing previous beliefs and admitting wrongs, humbling herself within a cloud of prostration. Whereas the struggle sessions of the Mao era had thousands of attendees, the televised confessions of today are beamed onto the screens of over a billion people.
The schadenfreude that viewers express online is torrential, but if trial by television ever loses its popularity, the Chinese have a fall back: IS is giving them plenty of source material. The awful, unwatchable video of James Foley's execution just made it onto a massive public screen in Beijing, which perfectly fits China's desire to project a harmonious self-image to its own citizenry while portraying global chaos.
The distasteful has evolved into the surreal, and viewer ratings are only going up.
(A previous version of this article incorrectly indicated that the Baidu comment was directed at Gao Yu. It was actually directed at Guo Meimei. -Ed.)