29 Jan 2020

China unleashes forced confessions to control Coronavirus rumours

As China battles to get a grip on the highly infectious Coronavirus epidemic that emerged in Wuhan in December, it has also brought out a well-worn tool – public forced confessions -- to control the debate on the disease and humiliate and punish those who “spread rumours” or take advantage of any panic.

This nationwide campaign to "refute the rumours" by frightening people into thinking twice about discussing the disease on the Internet is aimed at showing that if you get caught, not only can you be punished but you will be paraded humiliatingly online. And, like the televised confessions of pre-trial detainees Safeguard Defenders researched for our report Scripted and Staged: Behind the Scenes of China's Forced Televised Confessionsit is highly unlikely any of these people would have had access to a lawyer or the freedom to resist having their confession filmed and disseminated online.

Over the past few days, Weibo and Wechat, two of China’s most popular social media channels have been flooded with videos of people confessing. Most of these appear to have been posted by local police stations across the country from Sichuan in the west, Jiangxi in the east and Hainan in the south.

We take a look at three of them here.

1: Hainan Confessions


The first is a four-minute video or vlog made by the Danzhou Police and posted to the Hainan Police official Weibo account on 27 January. Danzhou is a city in Hainan, an island province just off the southern coast of China. The host is a police officer from Mutang Town in Danzhou.

The vlog is professionally produced with background music, captions, subtitles and graphics.  Three suspects, two accused of jacking up prices of rice and daily necessities, and one of spreading online rumours that Hainan is running out of rice, sit successively in the same tiger chair against a dark blue background. They all wear civilian clothes, their faces are covered with a mask, and their facial features are blurred.

The clip starts off with the police officer chatting amiably about rumours online connected with the coronavirus as he gets kitted into protective gear including a white coat and blue rubber gloves.

At around 1:17 we are shown the first suspect, captioned: "suspected of maliciously driving up [rice] prices". The police officer, now wearing a face mask stands over him and tells him inflating rice prices is illegal.

First the suspect denies he raised prices, saying he wouldn’t dare. The police officer gets angry. “Don’t give me any excuses! Just tell me the truth. Did you put up the price in the end?”

The suspect admits that he did. “To be honest, I just wanted to make a little bit more money.” When the police officer asks him if he wore a mask when he sold rice, he says yes. “Were you also afraid of being infected?” the officer said. The man gives an embarrassed laugh and says yes he was.

At around 1:46, a new suspect appears, but this time his hands are uncuffed. He has the same caption.

This suspect said rising prices was just about earning a little bit of extra money.

The officer gets angry at one point. “Say that once more about raising the price by just a few dollars. (he begins shouting) The price was doubled and you were saying it was just a few dollars!” 

At around 1:59, a female detainee appears. She is handcuffed and captioned: "suspected of spreading online rumours and disturbing social order".

The woman immediately says: “I know I did wrong.” The officer accuses her of posting a message that went viral urging people to rush out and buy rice because it would not be shipped into (Hainan) any more.

She begins crying. “I wasn’t thinking clearly…maybe if I had thought about it properly I wouldn’t have sent it.”

He reprimands her further asking her has there ever been a shortage of rice or food because of a disaster or emergency in China before? 

“Because of that one message you sent out you created chaos with people rushing out to stock up on rice. Did you think about the consequences of whether people may catch the virus when they crowd together to buy rice?”

“I didn’t consider this,” she says, still crying.

“You are a spreader of rumours. But also a victim of rumour spreading,” he tells her.  He goes on to say that every citizen has a duty and a responsibility. At the end of the clip he asks if she’s eaten today and she says she’s too upset to eat.

These three suspects appear to be connected with this news story that reports that two suspects, surnamed Li and Zhang, involved with processing and selling rice, profiteered from jacking up rice prices amid panic about fake news that was spread online that Hainan will suffer from rice shortages. The article said prices rose two to threefold. The third suspect, surnamed Fu, was a fruit vendor who spread rumours that mainland China would not ship rice to Hainan in a Wechat group.

According to the article Li and Zhang will be handed over to the market authorities to face legal proceedings, while Fu has been put under 10 days Administrative Detention.

2: Sichuan Confession


The second is a one-minute video posted on the Weibo account of Deyang Police on 27 January. Deyang is a city in Sichuan province, western China. This video is much more basic, simply a clip of an interrogation between a police officer from Mianzhu, a city inside Deyang. There are no graphics, captions, or subtitles, and both the suspect and the officer speak Sichuanese.

The suspect is accused of posting a video to a Wechat group showing doctors in a local hospital wearing protective clothing, saying this was proof the virus had reach Mianzhu. The man is cuffed into a Tiger Chair and his face is concealed with an emoji. The police officer stands over him in uniform wearing a face mask.

The man explained that on 25 January 2020, he drove past Mianzhu’s Second Hospital when he spotted some hospital workers wearing protective suits. He thought that meant the virus had spread to Mianzhu so he shot a video with him saying that it was so scary that the virus was now here and posted it the same day to his Wechat.

When the officer asks him what he thinks about his actions he replies: “The video I posted was fake news. I never got any proper information, but I posted it anyway to my Wechat. I caused serious panic, and very serious consequences. I really regret this.”


3: Jiangxi Confessions

The third video was posted by a pro-government but unofficial Weibo account (named 月亮湖视频) on  26 January of two suspects accused of spreading rumours online, clearly reading a script with their faces blurred at the Lianhua Police Station. Lianhua is a county in Jiangxi province on China’s eastern seaboard. The first suspect is a woman who “falsely” claimed there was someone in her residential complex who had caught the virus; the second suspect, a man said the local hospital was treating someone with the virus.

The woman (whose family name is He) says:

“Without verifying first, and just hearing it from others, I spread a rumour in a WeChat group about how there was one Coronavirus patient in Lianhua country living in Ancheng Guoji complex and that they were now being treated in the county hospital. This had a harmful effect on society. The police taught me that it was illegal to fabricate stories and spread these rumours online. I’m here to remind all netizens not to post or spread any information that has not been confirmed by public security organs.

The man (whose family name is Wang) said (in almost identical language):

“Without verifying first, and just hearing it from others, I spread a rumour in a WeChat group about how there was a  Coronavirus patient being treated at Pingli hospital, Shenquan Town, Lianhua Country. This had a harmful effect on society. The police taught me that it was illegal to fabricate stories and spread these rumours online. I’m here to remind all netizens not to post or spread any information that has not been confirmed by public security organs. “