26 Nov 2019

Frightened, abused and alone: Simon Cheng reveals the details behind his forced filmed confessions in China

This summer, Chinese state security placed Hongkonger Simon Cheng into incommunicado detention. They interrogated, tortured and forced him to record multiple confessions. Chinese state media released a clip of one last week. This is Simon's story about how those confessions were made. 

The young man in the shaky video footage aired by Chinese state media CGTN was Simon Cheng, a Hongkonger who worked for the British consulate and who had been detained by Chinese state security in August.  Just a day earlier he had broken his silence and told the western press how Chinese police had kidnapped, shackled, tortured, and accused him of being a spy for the UK and then threatened him with a lengthy prison term.

So when they asked him to record confessions – using three different storylines – he didn’t feel he could say no.


The confessions begin on Day 11 (20 August)

Later he was to find out that Day 11 also marked the time when the media story broke worldwide that Chinese police had detained him.

Over the next few days, two different teams of police: plainclothes Chinese secret police and uniformed regular police officers, would film at least six different confession sessions with three different storylines:

  1. State security police wanted him to confess to “betraying the motherland.”
  2. Uniformed civilian police wanted him to confess to “soliciting prostitution.”
  3. Both civilian and security police made him “star” in two versions of a Q and A style video where he would say he had been treated fairly and justly.

The first recordings happened on 20 August (Day 11) when Simon was made to record his “motherland” and “prostitution” confessions at separate times and locations. He re-did those two confessions again on 23 August (Day 14); and hours before he was released on 24 August (Day 15), state security and police made him record two separate Q and A sessions to say that he had been treated fairly and humanely, and that the police had done nothing wrong.


Writing the scripts

Police instructed Simon to write the scripts in the form of “confession letters.” “They told me roughly what to write, and I put it in my own words,” Simon said. For all sessions, police reviewed what he had written and told him to make changes.

The Q and A sessions were wholly scripted by the police. The kinds of things he absolutely had to say included the following:

  • “I had to apologise and show remorse;”
  • During the Q and A sessions, he was forced to mention exact dates and times for things that had happened, which he couldn’t remember, to say that the police were justified in keeping him for the 15 days Administrative Detention, and even for another two years if they saw fit;
  • He had to say that: "I was not treated inhumanely or illegally;" and that he did not want to hire a lawyer or his family contacted (although the opposite was very much true);
  • State security police insisted he say: “I’m being used by western powers,” and “I should love my country [China].”


Costumed and Staged

While previous victims of forced TV confessions were made to change their clothes and "dress up" for the filming, Simon kept the same pink detention centre uniform on he wore normally. Police also forgot to return his glasses, but they made him shave his beard before the filming. 

"I looked like a barbarian since I hadn't shaved for 14 days," he said.

When Chinese state security police interrogated Simon (one session lasted a gruelling 48 hours) they normally did it in a secret location, a 40-minute drive away from Lo Wu Detention Centre where he was being held. They beat him with batons, strung him up by his arms and made him squat in painful stress positions for hours. During lengthy interrogation sessions at the detention centre he was treated better but was locked and cuffed into a tiger chair.

However, when the uniformed police shot the forced confession footage they moved Simon to the more "pleasant" surroundings of the lobby of the detention centre.

While state security police shot the "motherland" confessions in the interrogation room, when it came to the Q and A style confessions, shot hours before his release, both civilian and state security police placed him on a cushioned chair in the detention centre reception room that had some decoration. In the short clip released by Shenzhen police, a small pot plant and side table is visible next to Simon.

"I was not allowed to wear glasses from the very beginning, so I kept feeling dizzy and suffocated."

from Simon's testimony


Rehearsals and Retakes

Before shooting, police would make Simon rehearse his lines and run through the "performance." Even so, Simon said, each session needed between three and five retakes.

"They instructed my tone and gesture should be as natural as possible, also since I needed to memorise the script  sometimes I would forget [to say something], then they reminded me [and we had to] film again and again until they were satisfied."


Torture and Threats

Victims of forced confessions in China only do so under great duress. Simon is no exception. Every time he did not cooperate, police beat, tortured, and intimidated him. "If I didn't cooperate and make the confession tape, they didn't explicitly promise to let me out after 15 days of Administrative Detention, but if I didn't do that I would definitely stand no chance to get out," he said.

"If I cooperate then I will face a less hard treatment. I would not get a criminal record under Administrative Detention. The alternative was indefinite criminal detention, severe criminal charge and harsh treatment handled by secret police. I have no choice but to give a confession."

from Simon's testimony


Whitewash and Blackmail

In previous forced TV confessions in China, police routinely lie about the reason behind filming the confession -- they typically say it is only for their superiors to see and persuade them to take the case more leniently.

In Simon's case they did not tell him the reason for the filmings but he believes that they made the recordings for two reasons:

  • To whitewash his illegal treatment; get him on camera to say that they had treated him well.
  • As a form of blackmail. "I knew the videos would be used as a threat, that they would leak them to the media if I didn't behave myself [and do something like] making public the truth of my case. 


The Emotional Cost

Even though when the filming started, Simon felt some hope as he realised the Chinese police were probably nervous about the media attention on his case and that's why they suddenly wanted to make the confessions, saying those lies to camera also gave him a lot of pain.

"Because the confessions are not true, I was still heartbroken [to make them]. If they leaked the video, then it makes me a victim a second time and also hurt my girlfriend and my family. It keeps reminding us of this ordeal we don't want to remember. The public will mock and discuss these tapes and that intrudes on our personal privacy and puts us under a lot of pressure and the threats of being witch hunted and doxed."