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01 Oct 2018

Early use of Forced TV Confessions against the New Citizens Movement

Through Safeguard Defenders (RSDLmonitor’s parent organization) release of Scripted and Staged (EN and CN versions here), on China’s use of Forced TV Confessions as a tool to undermine the right to a fair trial, and through the continued publication of more material on these televised confessions by RSDLmonitor, the collaboration of Chinese state-media with police has become clear. The release of a small database (CN edition here) on these Forced TV Confessions have further amplified the systematic nature of how state-media is used to broadcast, and often extract and produce, such televised confessions.   However, tentative research indicates that the use of broadcasting these forced confessions is far more rampant on local levels, through the use of regional or provincial TV stations. Because of this, RSDLmonitor is now releasing the testimony of one of the first victims of a Forced TV Confession on a provincial TV station since the rise of Xi Jinping and his policy of stronger CCP-control and use of media– that of Li Gang, a member of the New Citizens’ Movement.  


Li Gang Li Gang was one of several people detained in mid-2013, at the height of the New Citizens’ Movement (NCM), spearheaded by Xu Zhiyong. Li, like many other adherents of this movement was not a long-time activist or human rights defender, but, in his own words, ‘living a normal life’. Li is a university graduate, and was working in a big company in Beijing, living with his wife and son. He learned about the New Citizens’ Movement and the ideas behind it from reading about it online, and started becoming involved in the year prior to his detention and arrest. Li’s involvement meant sharing information online, organizing and participating in small dinner gatherings, making badges and posters, and taking to the streets to call for disclosure of assets for government officials.   When Li was detained on July 12, 2013, he could not have known that he was to become a propaganda pawn against the movement.   The text below is based on Li’s own writing, complemented with a Q&A session, translated into English and edited for readability.  



  Interrogations at Beijing Third Detention Center I was detained in my house [in suburban Beijing] just before midnight, by more than a dozen police officers. It was July 12, 2013. After detaining me they took me to Beijing Third Detention Center. I knew later that Li Huanjun and Song Ze [two other NCM activists] had also been taken, I think from their homes but I’m not sure. [They, along with Xu Zhiyong, Ding Jiaxi, and many others, had been detained starting in late spring that year as part of an expanding attack against the movement].   They started trying to convince me to confess almost right away. First they wanted me to confess, to write a letter repenting. I refused since I had not broken any law, I was not a criminal. This, trying to make me confess and, soon after, to record a TV confession, would go on for months. With me, as it seems to have been with others, their main threat, the main way convince me, was to threaten my family.


If I don’t go on TV, my son will suffer and be restricted in his education they would tell me. If I don’t [record a confession], they will give me the harshest penalty [length of imprisonment], and my son would be in middle school before I ever got out. Then they convinced my family to write me letters telling me to confess and make the TV recording. I received two or three such letters while in detention, handed to me by my interrogator during our interrogation sessions.   I could meet with my lawyers. I had two. One was forced to quit, and the other was busy, so in the end, during the six months, I think I meet them three or four times in total. In the meantime, police was working on getting me to confess.   There seems to have been mostly thieves in my cell, and most of Beijing Third Detention Center. The cell was small, some 3x7 meters, but 2x7 of that was taken up by the beds, was just a narrow path for any movement or activity. They had an activity space of course, but could only visit a few times a week. Daily life, when not including interrogations, was merely eating, sleeping, sitting. In the evenings we could watch two hours of CCTV newscast and BTV (Beijing TV).  


Unbeknownst to Li, Xu Zhiyong himself had been taken and placed into the same detention facility, just four days after Li himself. Years later, and after several years of imprisonment, Xu would write:


“The cell in Beijing’s No. 3 Detention Center was already prepared. It was specially set up the day before. There were twelve people in the cell; except for me, everyone else were theft suspects. The vast majority of the more than 400 people detained in the No. 3 Detention Center were there for allegedly stealing mobile phones on public buses.” Unlike with Li however, no one was allowed to call Xu by his name. He was given the codename 706 instead.



About five month in I was ready to give up, they started to convince me I needed to make the confession video. At this point I think I had been interrogated about 50 times. The interrogations took place in another room inside the same detention center. Always two interrogators present. The main interrogator, from Haidian district in Beijing, was Zhu Zhengbin (朱征斌), the other guy was Wang Jun (王君). It seems Wang was a special case officer, involved not only in my case but in the cases of all the others that had been detained related to the New Citizens’ Movement.   Some of those times interrogations would last eight to nine hours, sitting handcuffed to an iron chair [tiger chair]. Everything would start with me writing a letter confessing, repenting. No recording could be done until the letter was ok. Based on our interrogations, they would tell me to write a draft, after which they would check it, point out what was missing, and ask me to change and make another draft. Over and over. What I wrote had to follow what they wanted, completely.   Not surprisingly, they would ask me about my connection with Xu Zhiyong and Ding Jiaxi, two people seen as leaders of the movement. They wanted to use me to attack Xu, in video or in trial. Neither Xu nor Ding ever confessed, they never made a video. They are stronger than me, more insistent. Many times they would ask about the smallest things, or even about philosophy, or how I understood “Free, Righteous, Loving”, a slogan used in the movement.   When I talked with my other cell mates, they didn’t think it be worth going to prison for a long time just to not make a confession on video. “We stole phones, we did what we did for money, but you, what did you do this for?” They thought nothing should be more important than getting out. They might also have had some selfish reasons for saying it of course, like letting me pass along messages to their families when I was released, but I could feel their support. I couldn’t talk with my family, and it seemed no one was paying attention to me. It felt hopeless. After five month or so, I decided to do it. I said Yes.


The recording was made in the interrogation room inside the facility. The interrogators were there, but also a journalist. He [the journalist] looked nervous. He was from Beijing TV (BTV). In the end, he didn’t ask any questions, that was all done by the police. They journalist must have known he was doing something dirty, something that wasn’t right. Most of the time was just me reading from the confession letter I had memorized.   Even though the video I appeared in is 10 minutes long or so, recording it all took three recordings over two days. In the first session, police would record with a smaller camera. They then showed the journalist, who would give feedback. The police would talk with the journalist about if it “would work”. I didn’t understand it then, but seeing the editing they did afterwards, I now realize they meant, can we use this recording to edit as we want. The journalist told the police how he could make the video in such a way to make it easy to edit afterwards. After this, the journalist would set up and use the proper BTV camera to record it.   Before each recording session, the interrogator would restate the same point, that I needed to do this, say this, achieve this.  


During this time, without Li being aware, police had been working to get Li’s main target, Xu Zhiyong, to make such a recorded confession as well. Xu later wrote:


“[They] urged me to “admit my mistakes.” The meaning was very clear: if I surrendered, I could go home, but if I didn’t capitulate, I’d be facing 10 years or more, and there would be more than one criminal charge. Think about your family... How did they want me to acknowledge them? It must be done in front of the media. A TV confession.”


Xu refused and went to prison instead.



  Seeing your own confession on TV One of my reasons with making the confession recording was that it would require them to let me speak about the New Citizens’ Movement, and maybe even use video from one of the rallies. After seeing the video I realized they edited away any direct mention of the movement, anything related to officials disclosing their assets, etc. In some case, when I said “not good”, they would even edit out the “not”, changing the meaning to the exact opposite! They would edit anything to their wish, and of course, would edit to make it look like I placed all responsibility on Xu as the organizer, even when I didn’t.   The video is not even available on BTV anymore, but you can find it online. Watching closely, it’s not very coherent. They edited it so much, and went to such length to hide the meaning behind what we were doing, what our banners called for, what the New Citizens’ Movement was about, that in the end, it didn’t make for a coherent video.   The months before agreeing to do it, I felt a very intense struggle, an ideological struggle almost. In the end, I did the video, based on my situation inside detention and the pressure on my family. I wasn’t as strong as some others, like Xu. I thought I would lose face making the video, but I also thought I could show what we were all about, what the New Citizens’ Movement was about, by making the confession. After seeing how they edited it all, I realized I was very wrong.  


Most of my friends seems to understand the confession, why I made it, especially those others taken and detained in relation to my case. In the human rights community people talk [gossip about those who detained or who appears in TV confessions], but I think those not willing to confess tend to be those that get a lot of attention and support. Not people like me. I wasn’t a leader. I couldn’t get support from the human rights lawyer community, or that kind of attention.   The confession on TV did of course have some effect on me, but I was not a professional activist or a famous human rights defender. I only ever attended these events and types of gatherings because I wasn’t very happy with the government. I was, and is, just a normal citizen. I guess in the end they wanted someone like me to go on TV to tell the ‘regular audience’ about the danger of trying to protest, and to also threaten the human rights community about what could happen if you challenged the government.   Seeing other confessions, and how people react to them, I can see many people don’t understand. Like the confession of Gao Yu [famous journalist]. I admired her for a long time, but the police charged her with leaking state security, and mobilized people against her because of that. That kind of charge is very effective to smear someone. Or like Wang Yu. They showed a video of her quarrelling with a judge, but never showed anything else, easily giving people a wrong impression. I think these videos do work, for now, but in the end, with more and more time, and more and more confessions, people will start to see through these confessions.