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13 Oct 2020

China’s forced TV confessions are back, this time it’s Taiwan’s turn

Despite international condemnation for broadcasting forced confessions, China aired yet another one Sunday night.

In a 15-minute documentary on CCTV-13’s Focus Report (焦点访谈), a Taiwanese man, Lee Meng-chu (李孟居) was shown with a shaved head and a maroon prison vest confessing to filming military exercises in Shenzhen last year while Hong Kong was consumed by pro-democracy protests. At the time, there were fears Chinese troops would cross the border into Hong Kong to put down the unrest.

We last heard about Lee (also known as Morrison Lee) in September 2019, when China finally admitted to detaining him in Shenzhen. It took them three weeks after he disappeared to confirm this.

Scripted and Staged

As exposed in our ground-breaking 2018 report, Scripted and Staged, on China’s forced TV confessions, these clips are made before any trial, victims have no access to a lawyer, and often – as it almost certainly was in Lee’s case – after a lengthy period in solitary confinement. Torture and threats are common means to coerce confessions.

Lee’s recording is typical of those in our study. In line with Beijing’s strong-arm style of dealing with Taiwan, victims from that country are usually shown in their prison clothing and include footage of them handcuffed and marched between two police officers. Other victims in recent years have been shown in more neutral settings, wearing civilian clothes, likely to give them the semblance that the victim is not coerced.

Our research has shown that confessions are almost always scripted and contain many common elements such as an apology – and especially for foreigners – an admission that they have wronged China.

Lee’s was no exception.

 “I’m very sorry. I have done many bad things and also may have hurt the ‘motherland’ or country,” he says.

Forcing Lee to call China his motherland was clearly an intentional dig at those who support Taiwan independence.

Lee also said he engaged in these acts only to raise his social profile. Victims of China’s TV confessions are often forced to negate their activism by saying they were only pursuing fame or fortune. Scripting these lines in are a way ro reframe the story away from their pro-rights motives and to discredit the victim.

Warning to Taiwan

Our research on the type of confession script that foreign victims were typically forced to read also indicated that those featuring foreigners appear to be directed at a foreign audience and aimed at countering criticism or to threaten an overseas government.

While the documentary was likely to appeal to a nationalistic domestic audience, who have an appetite for seeing Beijing taking firm control of the Taiwan issue, as a prime time show, it was also clearly aimed at attracting Taiwan media attention.

The message here came in the last few minutes, with a warning that pro-independence Taiwanese who violate Hong Kong’s national security law could be sentenced from three years to life in prison.

The timing of the documentary was no coincidence. Bearing in mind that Chinese authorities have had Lee for more than a year, the confession was released a day after Taiwan’s national day and while relations across the strait are tenser than normal due to warming ties between Taiwan and the US and Taiwan’s voice of support for Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement.

Lee is only one of dozens or maybe more Taiwanese people who have been disappeared by Chinese authorities in China.

CGTN in the dock for airing forced confessions

While this programme was broadcast on CCTV-13, a domestic channel, the Party-state media’s global arm, CGTN has been under fire for broadcasting forced confessions in the past.

In the UK, CGTN was found guilty earlier this year of breaking broadcasting codes because of this and is now awaiting a penalty decision. Safeguard Defenders has also filed separate complaints against CGTN for broadcasting forced confessions in the UK, Canada, the US and at the United Nations.

Here is a timeline explaining in detail our campaign against CGTN.