Part of doing justice in the criminal process is protecting the dignity of people in custody, presuming their innocence, and providing them with the conditions necessary for fair trial. China’s decisions to prohibit public executions, in 1979, and ban “perp walks” for sex workers, in 2010, seemed to acknowledge at least some of these principles, but ongoing public arrests and sentencing and televised confessions indicate that dignity and fairness are not afforded equally to all Chinese citizens.
Public arrests and sentencing are often held in large outdoor public spaces like plazas and stadiums and feature the accused bound and flanked by police—at times with placards around their necks—in front of crowds of spectators that can number in the thousands. According to Phoenix Weekly, at least 196 “public displays of law enforcement” (i.e., public arrests and sentencing) were reported on by Chinese news media between 2008 and May 2011. More than 90 percent of the gatherings were in smaller cities, i.e., county-level cities and municipally administered districts. The report says that the gatherings aim to “frighten criminals, educate people, and maintain social stability.”
Historically, public arrest and sentencing rallies were widely used in and outside China to crush political opponents and consolidate the power of royal families. In the first three decades of the People’s Republic of China, mass rallies served to educate the public about the errors of class enemies, including Kuomintang members and landlords.
Legal experts have spoken out against modern-day public arrests and sentencing, branding them “campaign-style justice” that emphasizes swift and severe punishment. In July 2010, Renmin University of China Law Professor Guo Weidong told Legal Daily that gatherings like these violate the presumption of innocence that requires the court to prove the guilt of a criminal defendant. Several legal experts joined the call for a legislative ban of these public rallies after more than 20,000 spectators witnessed the arrest of about 70 criminal suspects who were paraded in a public plaza in Qidong County, Hunan Province, on April 12, 2011. The rally was held amid a local “strike hard” campaign that began earlier that year.
Xinjiang and Tibet
Critics have been less vocal, however, about public arrest gatherings in Xinjiang. There public rallies are often publicized as stern efforts to combat and educate the public about the “three evil forces” of “separatism, religious extremism, and terrorism,” giving them a veneer of legitimacy amid the global “war on terror.” China News Website has called such gatherings “a concrete action to crack down on violent terrorist crimes and to rejuvenate positive energy in society.”
In May, 7,000 people witnessed the detention, arrest, and sentencing of more than 100 Uyghurs charged with inciting splittism, terrorism, and murder in a stadium in Yili [Ili] Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture. Pictures of the event were widely circulated in official news media.
That said, public rallies in Xinjiang occur even without allegations of extremism. As recently as June 16, 2014, 15 suspects shackled on blue trucks were condemned in front of 10,000 people in Tekesi [Tekes] County, Yili. They were charged with cult offenses, disrupting official business, and rape.
In contrast with Xinjiang, Tibet has received little media attention for public arrests and sentencing. The most recent instance of such an event being reported in official media was on March 9, 2012, in Jiulong [Gyezur] County. No information was made public on the allegations against the suspects and defendants but a crowd of more than 5,000 spectators, including cadres and students, watched as 24 people were detained, arrested, and tried.
In December 2011, Tibetan writer Woeser posted six photos of Tibetan monks captured by armed police during a stability maintenance campaign in Ganzi [Kardze] and Aba [Ngaba] prefectures. The images of people bound and bedecked with placards—some in open trucks beds—were reminiscent of those subjected to public arrests and sentencing but no narrative came with the photos. Some of the placards displayed criminal charges such as splittism and gathering a crowd to attack an organ of the state. Woeser speculated that the photos were taken sometime between March 2008 and 2011.
TV Set Confessional
Public arrests and sentencing if concentrated in Xinjiang appear to exist throughout the country and in response to various anti-crime campaigns. Probably due to the nature of their transmission, televised confessions seem to be more commonly applied to celebrities and public figures who have infringed upon the economic and political interests of the party.
The most recent televised confessions were made by Jaycee Chan, son of Hong Kong action film star Jackie Chan, and Taiwanese actor Kai Ko. (Ko’s detention was reportedly publicized before his family was notified, breaking with a cross straits agreement requiring notification within 24 hours.) Both were detained on drug charges in Beijing on August 14. Their confessions were preceded in early August by that of Internet celebrity Guo Meimei, who has been charged with illegal gambling.
Confessions on TV: (top left, clockwise) Kai Ko, Guo Meimei, Peter Humphrey, and Gao Yu. Image credit: CCTV
Foreign nationals have also been compelled to make televised confessions. In August 2013, Briton Peter Humphrey apologized to the Chinese government on Chinese Central Television for illegally obtaining private information. Broadcast narration from the news segment describes China as a country ruled by law where police fight crime regardless of whether it is committed by Chinese nationals or foreigners. Humphrey’s firm conducted investigations for GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) in China; the global drug company is now facing corruption allegations.
Chinese journalists have also been targeted. Chen Yongzhou (陈永州) was detained in July 2013 on suspicion of damaging business reputation after writing several newspaper articles accusing a listed company of falsifying its sales. Chen’s detention initially triggered a strong backlash in official Chinese media with several critics calling for his immediate release. The tide turned after the Central Publicity Department intervened in the case, and in late October 2013, state television aired Chen’s confession as filmed from a detention center in Changsha, Hunan Province.
In the lead up to the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Protest, another journalist, Gao Yu (高瑜), became the subject of televised confession . Gao’s face was blurred as she pled guilty to “illegally procuring state secrets for foreign entities” on May 30, 2014, the day of her formal arrest. Gao was accused of circulating Document No. 9 to an overseas website. The apparently classified document lists “seven perils” threatening the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), including western constitutional democracy, media independence, and civic participation. Gao was previously sentenced to six years’ imprisonment for illegally procuring state secrets in November 1994 for criticizing the violent suppression of the 1989 pro-democracy protests.
Both forms of public shaming, televised confessions and public arrests and sentencing likely share the same goals: frightening criminals, educating people, and maintaining social stability. Absent from this list of aims is justice, procedural or substantive. Public law enforcement marginalizes lawyers and courtrooms and with them go dignity, presumptions of innocence, and the likelihood of a fair trial. With an emphasis on legal reform in the upcoming plenary session of the 18th CPC Central Committee in October, perhaps one area worth revisiting is the tendency for humiliation to masquerade as justice.