ROBIN MCNEAL: Welcome back. We're very happy to have our own Professor Fiskesjo here tonight to speak with us. Professor Fiskesjo finished his PhD at Chicago with a dual degree in anthropology and East Asian languages and civilizations Well in 2000. He then went back to his native Sweden, where he was the director of the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities in Stockholm for a couple of years?
MAGNUS FISKESJO: Five years.
ROBIN MCNEAL: Five years. This is a very famous museum. He then went to The Institute for Dance Study, which is in Princeton, not at Princeton. That is technically the right way to say that. Where Cornell then quickly nabbed him up and brought him here in '05? 2005?
MAGNUS FISKESJO: That's right.
ROBIN MCNEAL: Where he's been teaching ever since. Professor Fiskesjo speaks studies on a broad range of issues. He's a member of the East Asia and the Southeast Asia Program. He studies, among other things, the [? Wa ?] Minority who straddles China and Burma.
He has worked on human trafficking, and has worked in fields as old as mine, the most ancient historical [INAUDIBLE] and as contemporary as now. And I think now is what we're hearing about tonight. So I will leave the rest of the time to him to talk to us about TV Tears Made of Fear. Join me in welcoming him.
MAGNUS FISKESJO: Thank you. All right. Thank you for that introduction, Robin. Well, without further ado, the spectacles of forced and televised confessions that we have been seeing on Chinese TV over the last two years are part of a wider picture in China of the government's-- communist government silencing alternative and dissident voices by censorship, intimidation, disappearances, arrests, and a trumped-up judicial punishment inflicted on dissident and others.
We should acknowledge that this trend, this new trend, is not wholly unique to China, but sadly fits with an ongoing worldwide authoritarian turn. We are witnessing how in many countries around the world, just as at similar turns in history in the past, authoritarian strongmen are either taking power by force, or where elections exist, getting themselves elected with the help of voters who are apathetic or frustrated with democracy and longing for what seems simpler, a strong man.
We note how today's authoritarians share many things. They congratulate each other on their efficiency in getting things done and in telling it as it is. As they reject democracy and dispense with democracy, they share, especially in contempt for the freedom of expression and equality before the law, without which, of course, there can be no democracy.
And they seek to censor and to guide public opinion in these directions. Authoritarian China currently seems ahead of all the other authoritarians in curbing and managing public opinion, especially now that they are successfully harnessing the new digital universe of technologies to do this ever more effectively.
The forced and televised confessions in China are closely related to a key element in this authoritarian term, and that is to go beyond the mere silencing or censoring of alternative voices and opinions and seek to determine the facts. To shape reality so that it conforms to state orthodoxy, to the preordained teleology or set course of history, which I will get back to later.
Yes I, will begin by talking about the Causeway Bay Bookstore, where five booksellers were taken away, abducted, starting October 2015. One of them taken from Thailand, where he was vacationing, three from China, where they were visiting, and one from inside of Hong Kong.
This is one of the many so-called second floor. This was one of the so-called second floor bookstores in Hong Kong that sell books on Chinese politics that are forbidden in China, but are very much sought after by Chinese customers who are visiting from the mainland. And you can see the sign for it there, on the second floor.
The first person to be abducted, that is, from Thailand, is an old friend of mine that I have known since the 1980s. His name is Gui Minhai, or Al Hi is the nickname that I usually know him by. He was abducted in October, as I mentioned, and then disappeared from Thailand. He left behind unused medicine lined up on the table and so on in an empty apartment, his computer still on, and so on.
And he was apparently then taken through Cambodia and flown back to China, where he was held in detention, incommunicado, and without any news to family or friends or anything. Until suddenly, on January 17, 2016, he was put on Chinese state TV confessing to certain crimes that had happened more than a decade earlier and which seemed to have been resolved at the time, but now had been dug up again and now were being used against him.
I have to tell you that it was very painful. I still have trouble watching this video that they put on show because I know the person who is there. This is him the way he looked in the 1980s when I first met him, and when he went to Sweden to study, this is the where he changed from his Chinese citizenship to Swedish citizenship, so he's a compatriot of mine, which makes this issue especially fraught, because he's being held and denied access to his embassy, the Swedish embassy.
This is the picture of him recently, having put on some weight and in his new life as a writer and publisher in Hong Kong, where I last saw him at a dinner there in 2012. We had not kept close touch over the years, but I have been following the news ever since this happened.
The British newspaper, The Guardian have done a lot of good journalistic work following up on this, such as going to his vacation apartment, checking on those pills on the table, and so on and so forth. And this is their page graphic of illustrating the sequencing which these disappearances happened. And it was first unknown to the world that these disappearances were happening.
And it blew up first in November, when the news came out, but especially since the last days of December 2015, when the last one, the fifth one of these collaborators, associates, colleagues, apparently was taken from within Hong Kong, which caused an enormous stir. Because as you know, there is a promise from China to respect the judicial autonomy of Hong Kong until 2047, and this would be a flagrant breach of that.
So it became much more of a news than before. This is Lee Bo, the gentleman who caused this to become so much bigger in the news. And these are the four other booksellers, as each of them turned up in their confessional videos, shown on Chinese state television.
This series of events, especially then starting January 2016, provoked a lot of protests in Hong Kong because of the worry about the future of Hong Kong. And here you see people holding posters and demanding the release of these people involved.
Some form of protest also continued by trying to continue to sell the kinds of books that these bookstores were selling before. This bookstore, Causeway Bay, is not the only one, but one of several that did this. And of course, these protests also connected up with the much larger movement in Hong Kong of suspicion of China's motives in perhaps scrapping the one country, two systems deal with the freedom of expression and judicial autonomy for Hong Kong. So such that even some of the Hong Kong dissidents became surprise that their efforts caught such enormous attention around the world, which is what happened with Agnes Ting.
Hong Kong's chief executive, who is appointed from China, was in a fix because he operates under a mini-constitution that says very clearly that there is freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of publication in Hong Kong, and no Hong Kong resident shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful arrest, detention, or imprisonment. So he came out and said that if it were true, indeed, that one of these booksellers were taken from inside Hong Kong, that would not be acceptable. And he also expressed worry about the others.
The protests that continued sometimes turned to humor. And when the Chinese authorities on the mainland produced messages from those abducted, saying that they were OK, that there was no case, that they were not disappeared, that they were not kidnapped, the people in Hong Kong used this to produce mock statements from a supposedly kidnapped Hong Kong governor, the chief executive of Hong Kong, writing to his wife and saying, I am not-- I'm fine.
I'm getting my favorite tea. My abductors are really nice to me. The special committee in charge of my case are being really nice to me. So this is the kind of protest that is possible in Hong Kong; satire and mocking. This kind of attempt from within China, from the Chinese authorities, to coerce these people that have been abducted and taken away to produce such statements that people could not believe were real.
In Sweden, at the same time, mass media has been following this case very closely because this is a Swedish citizen that has been detained since October, under very unclear circumstances how he was abducted from Thailand. So our government has made communications with the Thai government as well as with the Chinese government and demanded to see him and demanded that he's given due process under the law. But he's been denied access to the embassy except for twice that he has met embassy officers from our country.
He has a daughter who is a university student, currently doing an MA at a university in England, though she grew up in Sweden and speaks completely idiomatic Swedish, she's Swedish, just like me. She has become a campaigner on behalf of her father. And for a while, she was silent and she was very frightened by this situation, where she was getting contacts from her father which were clearly also under duress. Where he would not say where he was. He would not spell out the circumstances under which he was held. He would only be limiting himself to two very brief messages of concern. Clearly as he-- there was a policeman sitting next to him while he was talking to his daughter.
Now, one of his colleagues is Lam Wing-kee, who is both a writer of political books and the store manager of this bookstore. He was detained inside China when he was visiting there. He was taken on a train, blindfolded, to Ningbo, another part of China. And then he was imprisoned in isolation for a lengthy time, during which people held him. They also forced him to practice a statement, a confession which he would read. And this he did on February 28, 2016, along with several other colleagues. And this also involved accusing his former colleague, Gui Minhai, of being the ringleader that the blame should be put on.
Well, so far this is playing out in a very sad way. Then came a high point. There were these three other colleagues Gui Minhai is still held. Three other colleagues have been allowed to return to Hong Kong. They have come out insisting they were not abducted, there is no case, there's nothing to talk about, and they've been silent.
But Lam Wing-kee, he came back, apparently on orders to retrieve a customer database, to provide that to the Chinese authorities, so that they could trace every customer of the bookstore. And instead, he decided-- according to him, it was a decision he made after arriving in Hong Kong-- I will not go back. And instead, he sought out local politicians and arranged a press conference at which he told all about his ordeal. How this was done to him. The way he was blindfolded. The way he was put on a train. The way they talked to him. Everything they did to him and how this confession was manufactured and forced onto him under threat, under intimidation.
And this was the first time that the international community could hear an uncoerced message-- testimony, from one of these abducted people not under the control of the authorities in China. And that's been written up. He wrote that up after that in a very detailed fashion.
And it's one of the strongest testimonies that we have anywhere of how this is done. How this kind of confession is produced. The steps that the authorities that do this take when they do it. And that's available now online at places like the Hong Kong Free Press.
He then took part in protests openly in Hong Kong, speaking against these abductions and for the freedom of the press and so on, along with other people in Hong Kong. And then came a low point, which was then when the authorities in China that had done this to him sent out a statement that he would face the worst consequences if he didn't come back right away, which made him say, I'm probably moving to Taiwan. Because if Hong Kong is not safe, I will seek safety elsewhere.
So we can ask, why is this happening? And the question can be broken down into multiple questions. You can say why the crackdown on Hong Kong bookstores? And why start with this bookstore? There are others. Why were they singled out? And of course, the broader question that I want to get to after trying to answer those first ones, how is this related to the wider crackdown in China on the expression of alternative views since the last two years.
Some possible answers are that there are top government and Communist Party leaders who have a very thin skin. They want to cultivate an air of infallibility. They could do nothing wrong. And so the stuff that is in those Hong Kong-published books that accused them of doing this and that, being corrupt, having girlfriends, things like that, is unacceptable and infuriates them, and therefore, they want them shut down. So they send out an order saying shut them down.
And there is a disturbing rumor which is related which says that there are factions within the Chinese leadership, and they put out some of these books to make life more difficult for people in the other faction within China. This, of course, is speculation. Another possibility is that there are, at the higher echelons of government, second thoughts on the buildup of the rule of law. In China, that has been going on since the 1980s. Should we really be doing this is what they may be thinking.
And they might be thinking that instead, we should be reviving communists and homegrown traditional authoritarian spectacles of power, parades and including these kinds of false confessions, to reinforce the regime by intimidation and openly reject democracy, as we have heard many times recently, which also fits with this global turn away from their institutions and the fundamentals of democracy, as I mentioned at the outset.
Speaking to the thin skin or infallibility obsession, I noted recently a very strange little incident. There was a speech that the Party General Secretary made at the G20 meeting in Hamburg. And he had one of those teleprompters, I believe, that Americans also have. And he was supposed to say [SPEAKING CHINESE].
Instead he said [CHINESE]. And this is because these two characters are very similar. Can you see? This one and this one are very similar. So if this was on the teleprompter, you might miss out and read the wrong one.
But if it was one speaks to a more open agricultural trade policy, and the other seems to say, loosen up your clothes, or take your clothes off. And therefore, there was edict that came out. This is being monitored by the Chinadigitaltimes.net.
People leak these censorship edicts, so you can read them. And they'd say right after that, no one can allude to this. No one can discuss it. No one can joke about it. No one can mention it. And if anybody does, it must be immediately deleted from everywhere.
And to me, that suggests a thin skin. Because this is misspeaking, which to me, is not a big deal. But it suggests a certain mindset which connects to what I said about infallibility. And I see this also in the current policy we saw with the media, which is also new.
The top leader made visits to the main state media outlets this February. And the slogans promoted were that the last name of our television station is the Communist Party. This is a Chinese expression which basically suggests a coincidence, that we're one and the same. The Communist Party and the TV station are one and the same.
It's not like TV has some kind of independent mission. No. We will be absolutely loyal, and we invite you to inspect us. And this is what was happening at this moment. A very strange kind of slogan.
Another kind of example among many was the sudden censorship of this book, which seems not directly related to contemporary affairs because it's about the late 19th century and the first years of the 20th century, when the imperial dynasty was overthrown and China tried to move towards a constitutional political organization. And this book was originally approved. There is a censorship, a very harsh censorship. It passed that. It was in all the bookstores, being sold.
And then suddenly, somebody high up must have seen this book and decided that we can't have this. So an order went out to confiscate it then move it off all the shelves, and now you cannot buy it anymore. Evidently, this was a sudden order from somebody higher up over overriding this machine. And this, again, suggests to me, individuals higher up, with power, in power, taking it upon themselves to make arbitrary decisions as they see fit, based on the moment.
And that inevitably leads to the suggestion that the same officials doing that must be itching to do the same in Hong Kong and in Taiwan, because there is a huge market for publishing in Chinese in those places. And there's a huge demand from mainland visitors who go there and want to buy those books.
This is just an example from another General Secretary of the Communist Party who is dead since several years. He had a collection of speeches put out, and that's not available in mainland China either, but you can buy them, as you can see, in Hong Kong.
Now, to the question, why this bookstore, Causeway Bay, which has now mysteriously changed ownership, and according to reports, all the books they had have been pulped, and that is destroyed. It could be the first Salvo of a drive to bring censorship to all of Hong Kong. Let's start somewhere. This bookstore will be shut down fist.
But then there are also these other rumors that suggest it was because of plans-- unconfirmed rumor-- it was because of plans to publish a book on the former girlfriends of Xi Jinping before his current military singer wife, who is the first lady of China, since he is the President and General Secretary of the Communist Party.
The rumors also say that one of these former women in Southeast China, in Xiamen, is said to have disappeared from the public eye. You cannot find her. You cannot meet her. And if true, this would suggest, again, a certain kind of thin skinnedness. Inability to have anybody discuss these things.
And I would say that if Gui Minhai was freed, that would be an excellent way of dispelling the impression that China is worried about the writings about former girlfriends. And it would also dispel the now widespread impression in the world of think-skinned disrespect for-- the freedom of expression and for the rule of law, at home and internationally, by disrespecting other nations' citizens, such as ours in Sweden, which I would say is unworthy of a great nation. [SPEAKING CHINESE], you can say in Chinese.
And I would say that damage increases the longer Gui and others are detained. His daughter is a really quite extraordinary young lady. I think she's 22. And this came very suddenly to her. She was not a very public person before that. But now she has taken it upon herself to speak for her father.
Here she is at the International Publishing Association, in a meeting in Frankfurt. An organization that China had just joined and which has a Freedom to Publish Committee. And she is talking about her father's situation as a publisher. She has also started up a new website that you can go to, freeguiminhai.org. And she's also on Facebook doing the same thing.
And I have to say that I very much admire her bravery and her being so capable and articulate in speaking to all these public audiences about these issues, even though she must be suffering. I know that she is suffering, because I've also spoken to her, in the situation that she's in.
That's the Causeway Bay Bookstore. Now, to widen the perspective, not only these booksellers, but a wide range of other people have been paraded and seen to incriminate themselves on TV, outside the law. And this is even though, as I said before, for years, China's government has been saying that we will build up the rule of law, courts, due process, et cetera, lawyers, and so on.
So there's a contradiction here. This particular example, that I think was under publicity-- we put it under publicity-- is a finance journalist who had written things about where the market was going and then was-- it was decided by someone somewhere that he caused the crash that happened. So he was told, you better go on TV and confess. It is your fault. And this is him doing that.
Another very striking and more directly political example is that of this village leader in Guangdong Province, where they had-- quite famous now-- elections, and he was elected as the village's representative, partly as an outcome of a struggle over land grabs, which is one of the biggest social issues in rural China right now, where developers seize land. Villagers protest because they don't want it seized, or they want something out of it.
And as part of this, he was suddenly disappeared and then showed up on TV saying, I'm corrupt. I accepted bribes. I'm a bad person. They staged a special protest in the streets rejecting this smearing of their own elected local leader. But of course, as in terms of the dissemination, there is no comparison between what these villagers can get out, in terms of the message, and what the massive media machinery of that state can get out. So this is the image that you-- most people will have seen, of a corrupt village leader who tried to chew over more than he could swallow.
And there are many other examples. To me, there's no question that this has become a set pattern that's been picked up from the past. It was not done in recent years, but from about 2013, this mode of grabbing people, working on them, intimidating them, persuading them to present a confession, and then disseminating that on the media has proliferated. So it's become a set choice. And these are just examples that show you that there is a mix of entertainers, actors, bloggers, journalists, we've already mentioned, and others who are all caught up in this and on whom this is deployed.
There's a difference here. And we know that torture is very widely used around China. This is acknowledged by judicial authorities in China, also, as I will get to. They have issued reminders, declarations, that we must stop the torture that is being done by police around China.
It, of course, happens mostly to unimportant people, small people. The truck driver or whoever who refuses to confess. He can be beaten. The difference is, of course, that he's not about to be presented on TV. He doesn't have propaganda value. If he had, he might not be beaten so that there would be visible scars. Instead he would be tortured or intimidated in such a way that he was made to accept his duty, as it were, to confess, and not beat him physically.
Here's another example of police-provided footage, which has this strange feature of blurring the face, which seems to be a decision by the editors to suggest something like respecting the privacy of the individual being put on the spot like this, even as she is put on the spot like this. So this is a curious thing to observe.
There's many other kinds of people who have been put through this, including a lot of lawyers. And during 2015, hundreds of lawyers representing ordinary people of the kind you saw with a truck driver being tortured, or like the villagers being the victims of land-grabbing and so on, these lawyers themselves have been rounded up and held incommunicado and forced to confess wrongdoing.
Some of them have been forced to confess to having colluded with foreigners. Another Swede, here. He is one of the foreigners that such lawyers have been accused of colluding with, because he's a legal aid activist, human rights activist, who lived in Beijing for a number of years. He suddenly disappeared and was made to do the same show. He's not the only foreigner that has been put through this. There's been some commercial-- some businessmen who have also been put through it. But he was.
And he additionally confessed to hurting the feelings of the Chinese people. He waited six months. I was very eager to get his testimony. But it never came. I waited six months, and then finally, he gave an interview to a newspaper. I think it was, again, New York Times, where he revealed how people were being tortured and screaming in the room next door.
He was not himself tortured, but he was frightened. He was also being intimidated by the authorities telling him that things will happen to your Chinese girlfriend and your Chinese friends if you do not read this statement on TV, which you should, and you will do it. And so he had to rehearse this and do this.
In Hong Kong, there's been something of an obsession with observing these choreographies. Choreographies of these confessions and to spot mistakes that these editors have committed. For example, in the case of my friend, Gui Minhai, they noted-- and I don't think that I would have noted this-- that midway through the interview, which is presented as if it's one sitting, he's not wearing the same clothes anymore. Which of course means that they have been editing this and forgetting to let him wear the same clothes, so that it would look like he was there throughout the same-- throughout one sitting.
It's very interesting to think about what this is about. Is it incompetence? Yes, maybe. Is it arrogance? Maybe these editors are saying to themselves, what the heck? It doesn't matter. It works anyway. So it's perhaps both.
And I have a slide here where I want to suggest the skeleton outline of how these people-- or based on these witnesses that we have, testimonies that we have, how these authorities, the people who are doing this, do it. First, you disappear. The victim. They can also do it now from other countries, such as Thailand, Hong Kong.
Then you keep things silent. That means there's no communication to relatives, friends, and so on. So everybody is anxious and afraid and scared, both the people held, and the people who are connected to them.
So I think that's very intentional. Then, at the same time, you interrogate, and you clean torture the victim. This is a specific term that comes from Darius Rejali, the prime scholar of the history of modern torture, who uses this term to describe, like I was suggesting, torture that doesn't leave obvious scars.
And that could be-- what could happen is that you could be isolated for lengthy times. You could be informed things that are not true. There could be threats made. And then there could be these various kinds of non-traceable violence, like too hot, to cold, no sleep, no food, prolonged standing, and so on and so forth.
You can also then move on, as in this case with the booksellers, to detaining associates and then have them speak against each other after they're frightened. But importantly, you assemble a case. And there is a Chinese phrase for this-- [SPEAKING CHINESE]. You've got to find one. So if there isn't anything, you have to find it anyway.
And then you script that, and you choreograph it. And you practice it in detention until you have a presentation that you're willing to put on TV. You film that. You film it first, and you edit it so it becomes perfect. Then you disseminate this self-incrimination via select mass media. And there's science on its own as to which channels are used.
You repeat that. You're going to just appear to more people. And then optional, you can then let these people go, or let them sit there, or you can have a trial and tell the authorities, judiciary departments, that now we need a trial.
What is also new in these recent years is that you can force Chinese origin people who have foreign citizenship or who sometimes have dual citizenship, as in the case of Lee Wu, by the way, to renounce that and force them to say that. That's something that's new as of last year. You can also apply the same to foreigners, and especially to less powerful countries, such as Sweden or people like that.
If we move beyond this kind of staged confession, I think we see the same kind of choreography in the way people who are apprehended abroad and brought home either for corruption trials, also like here. The people, the Taiwanese who were taken from Kenya to China. I think that it must be quite intentional, this use of the hoods. I don't know why phone scam detainees would need to be black-hooded as if they were Al-Qaeda terrorists. But because the Americans do this, it works to do this. And also not only as a justification, because the Americans do it, so we can, but also to suggest that we have complete control over these people. There is nowhere for them to go.
A similar example is a time in July last year, when Thailand was asked by China to give up about 100-- people who had gone into Thailand to ask for asylum status and to be shipped away from there, but who were sent back to China. And this was put on Chinese television, apparently causing a protest from Thai authorities, who the military [NON-ENGLISH] authorities, who were saying that this was not part of the deal. We gave you the prisoners, but don't make this kind of show of them, because that reflects badly on Thailand. It's what one kind of news does.
When we look at these presentations on TV, we can begin to see other kinds of inferences. Imagine the American black hoods. I think that's an imported technique that has been picked up. This one, we can see how they've picked up something else, which is these bars, which is also not a traditional Chinese way of doing things.
This one, I think, is picked up from elsewhere, from Russia. Because in Russia, this has been used for quite a long time. When you have suspects in court, you put them in a cage, with these kind of see-through bars, to highlight the fact that these people are subjected to accusations. They are not only suspects, but they are likely criminals.
So it's very much a stage show. This just happens to be one of the business tycoons, but this has happened to a lot of people there. And my theory is that when the editors, the choreographers of these confessions in China work, they got their ideas from elsewhere, such as from the US, such as from Russia.
There is a longer history of drawing on the Russian examples that goes back to the Soviet Union. And I want to move now into historical origins of these practices as they play out in China now. Right now, we have not just people like booksellers and journalists and people who are not Communist Party officials, but ordinary citizens in China. So far, I've spoken most about them.
But we also have, as part of the anti-corruption campaign in China, many officials who are put through the same motions. And I would say that the way they are presented, the way they are made to seem contrite and confess various kinds of crimes, has very strong parallels to the way these other people are treated, so there's a family of this phenomena.
But these are communists. These are members of the ruling party. These are members of the elite. This is the elite treating themselves, their own people, to this. And so this is different in that regard.
I think that one very interesting example was one of the highest ranking communist officers in China ever, since 1949, to be accused like this, or at least in recent decades, was Zhou Yongkang. And it's very interesting to see how he was kept in house arrest for 10 months. Of course, he wasn't given any hair coloring, so he lost the shining black hair that China's leading officials always seem to have, even though they are 70 years old, and he reverted back to his white hair. Then he was put on trial.
And I have a theory-- this is speculation-- but my theory is that this is intentional and a part of the choreography to make the people put on the spot look defensive and worn out and not able to defend themselves but instead, confessing. Whereas in the case of these most high-ranking officials, they would hold their confessions short, but submitting to this procedure is, of course, already to be playing along.
And for this, I think we have to go to the original Soviet communist model of Lenin's and Stalin's show trials, to see the origins of this. This was also exactly sham, show trials, involving former members of the same communist elite that was ruling the country of the revolution.
Many people think that Stalin started this. But actually, it was Lenin. I've been studying up a bit on this. It was the founder of the KGB and Lenin. The two of them together, who decided in 1922, that we're going to make this upcoming trial of our enemies into a show trial. We are instructing the judges to not look at their books. Instead, accept preordained verdict that they will make, and we will ask the media to work together and propagate this as an educative exercise. This is the essence of the show trial, and it's exactly what you have in the Chinese examples, and which we haven't seen for a while, but now have been picked up again.
This is one of Lennon's closest associates, a very interesting affair. He was executed by Stalin because he was a competitor for power. What is interesting about it is that many people in the past have thought that he was just such a firebrand communist that he decided, I have to confess publicly, otherwise I would shame my party. I would bring-- my Communist Party would look bad, and therefore he put up with it.
But there's been recent historical research by witnesses who were part of these proceedings, who have instead told the true story, which is that he was told that he had to confess, and that his entire family would be executed, including his children. And he desperately tried to negotiate for the life of his children and for himself, but to no use, because they were all killed by Stalin.
But this was why, at one moment, he made this confession that stunned the world. He confessed to plotting to murder Stalin, and to secretly plot with his enemies, and so on, which was all complete nonsense, of course.
And the Chinese communists picked up this very early on. This is from 1952, supposedly a first show trial of corrupt officials. Communist elite members. And you can see that it's already taking on the Chinese characteristics that we saw a lot during the Mao era. This kind of labeling of the victims, putting the accusation against them, alongside with their name on their bodies, and so on.
This was developed further in the Cultural Revolution, when it sometimes turned into on-the-spot lynching. There were people who were killed on the spot when this was happening. This was during Mao's cultural revolution. And it is, of course, because of those excesses that since the 1980s, after the death of Mao Tse Tung, many people in China have felt that we need the rule of law. We need a judiciary system. We need courts. We need this due process. We need all these things.
And such a system has been partly built up. There is a large infrastructure with courts at different levels and so on. This is the Supreme Court of China. And what is very interesting to me is that in recent years, the Supreme Court, as well as other levels, have explicitly condemned staged confessions and explicitly condemned torture, which they acknowledge that it exists. But they come out against it. It is illegal. The laws that have been implemented since 1980 say it's illegal. You cannot do this. But it is being done.
So they, being invested in this process of building up a judiciary system, they try to put their word in for stopping it. Just a snapshot from the Supreme Court's webpage. These are the kinds of people who are thinking these thoughts, that China needs the rule of law. This is why we're here. This is what we are trying to do. We are not stooges.
And recently there was a very interesting pronouncement by a top judge of a provincial court who was asked by the Wall Street Journal, what do you think about these TV confessions? Well, he said, outside of a court, no one has the right to decide whether someone is guilty of a crime. The police aren't qualified. Prosecutors aren't qualified. Media are less qualified to determine guilt as a direct reference to CCTV, the China state television, putting people on the show and confessing to crimes that they haven't even been accused of. So this is a powerful statement, and it shows you what I think is a very powerful sentiment, not just among the judiciary, but probably among many people in China, that this is the wrong way to go.
Another example is the vise chair of the Lawyers Association, not being interviewed by Westerners, but saying in a Beijing newspaper. This article was still up as of yesterday. So this can be said, somehow. "Forcing people to confess on TV means saddling them in a presumption of guilt. That's illegal. All evidence needs to be presented in court. All arguments needs to be made in court, and the final judgment should be based on a court's investigation, not somebody else's investigation." That's very powerful.
So we see that there's this split. There are these contending trends, and we don't know where they will go. Let's step even further back and ask, where do these torture practices come from? And in my research, what I found, which is surprising to me, is that I don't think they build a lot on precedents from China's own traditions of torture. Which have been prevalent, of course. You know, there's a whole literature about deaths by 1,000 cuts, [CHINESE], and so on and so forth. And there was, of course, a lot of punitive display of those sentenced in imperial China like this.
But not spectacles staged as if voluntary. They didn't do that. And in that sense, they are more like the Nazis than the Soviets. I mean, traditional China. Because the Nazis also-- it's very interesting to think about. They never put these shows on. And I have a theory about why the difference, but we can get to that. What I'm saying is that the source for the clean torture, no-touch torture that we see involved in the production of these forced confessions, doesn't necessarily come from traditional China. Bad as the judicial system may have been in some respects, with torture and everything, in traditional China.
If you read Darius Rejali, you'll find out. This is probably the best book today about the history of modern torture methods. You'll learn that clean torture, this set of practices that don't leave scars, are a modern invention by Western European police forces, spurred on by the urge to have clean statistics. To satisfy bureaucratic requirements, we want a high conviction rate. We want to be an efficient police force. And that would mean more public support for police, as fit in a democracy.
And that would mean better relations with the politicians who speak for law and order, if the police is insufficient. There is-- we had a talk recently in anthropology by Laurence Falph on the "Black Box of Police Torture" on the history of Chicago police officers in cahoots with politicians, implementing torture they had learned in the war in Vietnam on people in Chicago and covering it up. And it was-- this is something that is also discussed by Darius Rejali in his book.
This is where it came from. So it came from Western democracies, even though, of course, in reality, these practices are subverting the very fundamentals of democracy, equality before the law. How can you have that? Presumed innocence. Those are key elements.
And there's a tension within our democracies because of this. And it's because these practices are useful-- clean torture practices are useful-- that they were picked up. I wrote Darius Rejali, and we had a long conversation on email. And this is not something that he has studied, but he is venturing that there might have been Soviet communist prisoners in Europe who learned about and saw the practices of European police forces. And then after they gained power in the Soviet Union, they perfected this.
In the contemporary US, the most striking example may be right here in New York, is the Central Park Five. These are vie men intimidated into confessing to a 1989 crime. They were then exonerated completely by due process that said they didn't do it. Somebody else did it. There's proof somebody else did it.
There's a screen shot. And this is what they look like today. And this is before the current president-elect began arguing that no, they are guilty. This worries me a lot. That's authoritarianism. That's setting aside-- that's what I meant by rejecting and setting aside democracy's key elements, which worries me a lot. This is part and parcel of the same issue, whether we are in China or in the US.
If we think ahead-- this is a side track, perhaps, futuristic-- recent research is showing that the kind of hard work that the police were doing on the Central Park Five, convincing them by intimidation over lengthy periods of time that they were guilty, that they did it, changing their own mental pictures of themselves and their memory of their actions inside of their head-- this is extremely traumatic for them. All of that work may no longer be necessary in the future, because there are new techniques developed for how to alter the memories of living things. They're doing it for rats very successfully.
And you can see this movie to learn about Harvard researchers who are saying this is the bright future of taking away our phobias, so that we don't remember the scary incidents that cause us to be afraid of spiders or things like that. And of course, what authoritarian regimes will do with this is to alter your memories so that you now remember that you either did it or didn't, depending on what they want you to say, so that you can then repeat it. Which is a scary prospect, but perhaps worthy of a talk on its own.
Again, I do want to make the point that this basic issue of modern police forces seeking bureaucratic success, efficiency, is shared between China and other countries. In China, it's worse. Of course, you have 100%. Who would believe that? But they are aware that this problem exists, perhaps because of this. People in the judiciary know that no, those people are not-- 100% of people are not guilty. Some of those will be innocent people who have been tortured and forced to confess by the police, as in this picture.
Now, this is a little off, of course, because not everyone is beaten with a stick like that. But you get the picture. The policeman is looking to his bureaucratic superiors, who are asking him for statistics. Can you show us a high conviction rate? That's what he's doing. So that's why he's telling the victim, confess or else.
So China shares in a global modern predicament of justice. But we should still ask, what is historically specific to Communist China in the Soviet case? I already told you. This was imported from the Soviet Union. It was perfected for the special purpose of coercing political prisoners.
Assigned party propaganda spectacles showcasing the power of the regime and disseminated in mass media, and now social media, so to warn and frighten the wider public, which is rules, by reference to-- and this specific to, I think, the Soviet and the Chinese communism-- to an official teleology that claims ownership of the truth. How history should unfold, with the self-appointed Communist Party in charge, which is different from other kinds of authoritarian regimes, such as the fascist ones or other varieties.
And I won't get into, but I think it's very interesting to think about how this also helps explain the theocratic character of China and what was the Soviet Union, in the sense that the Communist Party is the same as the Vatican. It is the holder of the truth about history and humankind and the ultimate authority over the executive branch.
But before I end, I want to ask, also, another kind of question that I think should be asked, and which is very interesting, is that also, at the same time, some kind of shared Confucian character to this Chinese authoritarianism, perhaps shared with other parts of East Asia which are much more democratic, politically, Japan, Korea. But they also have this crazy conviction rates.
This is an example. Just three slides about that. In Korea, there was a pop band that included a Taiwanese girl, singer, and they were all in bunk beds, waving their flag. Some of you saw this video. And then because she waved a Taiwanese flag? See? She's waving Korea and then Taiwanese flags-- she was contacted by the business owners of this show, saying that this could mean bad business in China, because you're not allowed to show the flag of Taiwan.
So she came on air to affirm that she was proud to be Chinese, et cetera, et cetera. And what is interesting here was that a huge number of people on social media in Taiwan, they saw the direct parallel to Isis videos, where they filmed a guy digging his own grave just before his head is cut off. They thought that this treatment of this young lady, and her fearful demeanor as he was presenting this, was suggestive of this. And of course, there is a parallel. This is about power inequality.
If you go to Japan, you can see public apologies that seem very similar in form to the Chinese Communist version that we've seen today. But sometimes they seem overdone. This guy is a member of parliament who cried so much that it became a national joke, and went all around the internet as something to mock and ridicule, which of course, cannot happen in China.
There is also the difference that he would not be imprisoned. He is not being told to do this, he is just out to try a trick to save his political future, his seat in parliament. But it is very interesting to compare and to think about how there is a certain underlying shared notion of respect for authority. This kind of thing gets played up in Asian values and discourses that we find.
And I think also because you can see, in Japan, as in China, something that's slightly different, but also has a kind of family resemblance to what happens in China. A confession of something bad. A self-mutilation here, cutting off her beautiful hair.
A member of a girl's band who's had a boyfriend, even though she's not supposed to have a boyfriend. They have their own rules, and the public expects them to hold them. But I think it is of a family in that it means submission to authority. It means submission of yourself to a collective instead of arguing, go away. I have the right to see my boyfriend.
I wanted to end by going to Franz Kafka. His most famous book that is relevant for us is The Trial. This is Orson Welles' film version of it. It was posthumously published.
It's a story that's very relevant to us here. It's a story of a man, named only by the initial K, who was abruptly made to realize that he's being presumed guilty for some crime, and he's expected to conform to the opaque procedures of a court process which ends after about a year of his futile demands to find out what the concrete charges are, which is never told. And it ends with his execution, with two men killing him by sticking a knife in his heart. An execution to which he submits almost voluntarily, even if he seems to be hesitating and hoping that there might be some kind of last recourse.
Many commentaries have described Kafka as the author that talks about the anguish of the lonely individual of modern society. But I think that's not enough. Kafka himself at one point insisted, I am Chinese. And this is an argument that cannot really be reconciled with describing him only as the author describing, analyzing Western modernity. There's something deeper, and I should like to argue.
And here, I'm reading along with Hannah Arendt in her 1944 reinterpretation of Kafka, that his writings are about systematic inequality and the antithesis of democracy in the terms that I used earlier, in terms of the equality before the law. I think that Kafka's writing served to expose the ideology that naturalized as an equal authority. The ideology which supports such a system. And he exposes how that ideology colonizes the minds of almost every member of the society they're in, so that the state of affairs of inequality becomes invisible to them, with consequences for everyone.
There is a story by Kafka called "The Building of the Chinese Great Wall," which shows a China characterized precisely by such a system inequality. There are the lowly wall builders that are never given any explication of why the wall is being built. Why they have to build it the way they do. They are expected to just assume that the emperor knows. And the emperor's arbitrary power is warranted on this assumption that he knows, and they don't. They have no say.
So as in the society of the trial, everyone in this fictional China accept this state of affairs as a given, a natural state of affairs which cannot even be addressed, because it can't be seen. But of course, by writing it, Kafka is exposing it for what it is. And Hannah Arendt writes on the trial, no man can expect justice from judicial procedures where interpretation of the law is coupled with the administering of lawlessness. That is, lawlessness in the sense of the arbitrary framing and intimidation of a man made a suspect for the purpose of serving as a suspect.
The bureaucrats who conduct this process, argues Arendt, are functionaries of and faithful believers in an imagined necessity which, she argues, was an ideological formulation prevalent in Kafka's own time. The idea that we are subjected to a grand, unnecessary, and automatic process to which we must submit. We can't do anything about it. And to which most people unquestioningly do submit themselves. And I think China today is an example of this, and we may become an example of this.
I would argue that Kafka's tale served to expose the ruse behind this, and that his genius alliance in his simplistic-seeming depiction, frighteningly accurate of how we all, if left alone like K in the story of the trial, in the face of the system, would succumb to the dictates of the torturers even before the torture starts, as with K in the trial. Kafka was very keen on considering torture and the threat of torture as the means of enforcing conformity.
Faced with the threat of such intimidation, we all might easily become confused, and like K, in the face of massive conformity all around us, we would "choose," quote, unquote, to conform as well, by accepting the assigned guilt, like all those victims of no-touch torture, clean torture, and staged confessions that I have spoken about today, which I think could all be us. And indeed, I think we could be next.
So that's why I believe we must take Kafka prophecies very seriously. That's why this is not the end. Our future depends on our continued vigilance. And as scholars, research, analysis, critique. But thanks for now.
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Magnus Fiskesjö, Associate Professor of Anthropology at Cornell University, critiques the Chinese state’s use of illegitimate tactics and televised confessions to prosecute its dissidents. Recorded November 14, 2016 as part of East Asia Program’s Cornell Contemporary China Initiative.