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News analysis

TV confessions undermine Xi's vow to boost rule of law

Analysts say suspects' confessions before conviction meant to intimidate party's critics

Chinese President Xi Jinping's pledge to beef up the country's rule of law is in serious doubt with the "extreme" practice of airing televised confessions before a court conviction, say analysts.

The state's alleged role in the mysterious disappearances of those viewed as threats to the Communist Party from foreign soil has also raised questions over China's respect for the national sovereignty of other countries, they add.

Since Mr Xi took power in 2012, China has reportedly seen 16 cases of public confessions on state television by suspected criminals, some before they stood trial or were convicted of any crimes.

They have included actors, journalists, venture capitalists and lawyers, and were linked to cases involving either politics or criminal offences.

The latest cases are Hong Kong-based book publisher Gui Minhai and human rights worker Peter Dahlin, both Swedish citizens who "confessed" last week to a fatal drink-driving accident and running an illegal organisation respectively.

  • Public confessions

  • Peter Humphrey: The British risk consultant, who was accused of buying and selling private information, apologised on Aug 27, 2013.

    Charles Xue: The Chinese-American venture capitalist and celebrity microblogger apologised on Aug 29, 2013, for vice activity. 

    Gao Yu: The veteran journalist confessed on May 8, 2014, to "endangering national security" by providing secret Communist Party documents to an overseas website.

    Guo Meimei: The Internet starlet confessed on Aug 4, 2014, to illegal betting.

    Gui Minhai: The naturalised Swedish citizen and owner of the Hong Kong publisher Mighty Currents confessed on Jan 17 this year to fleeing from China while serving a suspended jail sentence for a drink-driving accident in 2003.

    Peter Dahlin: The Swedish human rights activist, who founded the Chinese Urgent Action Working Group, said in a CCTV clip on Jan 19 that his group was "criminally liable".

    Kor Kian Beng

Observers say the televised confessions are aimed at shaping public opinion and intimidating "troublemakers" - critics, dissidents, activists - from threatening the Communist Party's authority.

But Professor Hung Ho Fung of Johns Hopkins University said having the accused confess publicly in custody is against the move towards the rule of law as advocated by Mr Xi at the Communist Party's fourth plenum in late 2014.

"The reappearance of this practice signals a reversal of the development of rule of law, to be sure," Prof Hung told The Straits Times.

"It seems the new leadership is trying to consolidate its grip of power through these extreme measures, a tendency that we can find in its handling of rights lawyers and public intellectuals," he said.

In an online blog posting, Xi'an-based lawyer Tan Mintao said the public confessions - reminiscent of the self-criticisms and public shaming during the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution - also exposed the warped nature of China's legal system.

Besides questioning whether the confessions were made under duress, he also slammed how the state media, such as broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV), are given access to the accused, while their lawyers are often denied the chance.

"The criminal law also states that one is innocent until proven guilty by the court. Now, it has become ) that one is presumed guilty unless the state broadcaster states otherwise," Mr Tan wrote over the weekend.

In recent weeks, five Hong Kong booksellers and a Chinese journalist-activist - some while on foreign soil - are also believed to have been detained by China's secret operatives.

In particular, Mr Gui and Southern Metropolis Daily columnist Li Xin were reportedly spirited away while they were in Thailand, while Mr Gui's business partner, British citizen Lee Bo, was whisked away from Hong Kong.

The Sunday Times of London reported last weekend that the disappearances are part of a directive by the Communist Party to unleash its security services on opponents in exile.

"The most worrying aspect... is that these people disappear not only in Hong Kong but also in other sovereign countries like Thailand," said Prof Hung.

Nottingham University analyst Steve Tsang said some foreigners would wonder whether it is worth continuing to work in China, given the potential risks involved.

"China under Xi is still keen to project soft power, but how it has been managing such incidents has done more to undermine Chinese soft power than anything else so far," he told The Straits Times.

Analysts say China's foreign ties may also have been hurt.

"China is the second-most powerful country in the world," said Prof Tsang.

"It does not need to resort to such activities to assert itself. I see the whole operation as ill-judged."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 26, 2016, with the headline 'TV confessions undermine Xi's vow to boost rule of law News analysis'. Print Edition | Subscribe