What the current vogue for televised confessions and apologies says about Xi Jinping’s China
Love, as Ali MacGraw once sobbed, means never having to say you’re sorry. Working in China is the opposite: you have to say sorry quite often. A handwritten sheet of paper, ideally smudged by contrite teardrops, used to do the trick. But these days, it sometimes seems, an apology is worth anything only if it is made on national television. In recent months all sorts of people have unburdened themselves in this way: a leading financial journalist distressed at having helped create the “panic and disorder” in China’s markets; a Hong Kong publisher of muckraking books about Chinese politics, who disappeared from a beach resort in Thailand; a Swede who had for seven years run a group in Beijing offering legal help to Chinese citizens.
They and many others have confessed their “crimes” to the cameras and apologised for the trouble they have caused. Westerners, even those addicted to reality TV, find these displays on prime-time news shows appalling. America’s State Department expressed concern this month about the growing number who “appear to have been coerced to confess to alleged crimes on state media”. It does indeed look bad—an echo of Mao’s tyranny, when those accused of wronging the Great Helmsman were forced to kneel in dunces’ caps before braying mobs. So it is worth pondering why the Chinese authorities do it.
Two possible answers can be quickly dismissed: these confessions have nothing to do with justice or truth. The judicial process does not require a public apology or admission of guilt. Indeed, any chance of a fair trial is jeopardised by a verdict decided in advance, delivered by the accused himself and widely broadcast.
If the concern were to inform viewers of the true facts of a controversial case, then the confessions would be more credible. Instead, however, people are told, for example, a far-fetched story about Gui Minhai, the Hong Kong bookseller who vanished in October from Pattaya in Thailand. In his televised statement Mr Gui said that he had returned to China voluntarily, to answer questions about a hit-and-run road accident in 2003 in the Chinese port of Ningbo in which a young woman had been killed.
So viewers are asked to believe that Mr Gui, who is a Swedish citizen, was smitten by remorse for an accident that happened 12 years earlier. Perhaps, when the lightning bolt struck, he was parasailing, or merely enjoying his beachfront view over a mai tai. Either way, he abruptly forsook the good life to face the music, apparently smuggling himself out of Thailand without troubling the Thai border authorities. Similarly, Peter Dahlin, another apologetic Swede, this month belatedly realised that his legal-aid activities had broken the law and hurt the feelings of the Chinese people. His apology was followed by expulsion from China.
A third red herring is the notion that public confession and contrition is something that Chinese, or East Asian, culture demands. Seven decades ago, writing about Japan, Ruth Benedict, an American anthropologist, posited a distinction between “shame” cultures, where the fear of public humiliation helps regulate behaviour, and those, like America and Europe, ruled by “guilt”, and so constrained by the power of individual consciences.
The idea is controversial, and in many circles dismissed; but it is true that, across East Asia, public shaming seems an important part of political and even corporate life. Take a Japanese company, Takata, which makes car airbags.
After these turned out last year to be defective, its executives faced the press to say sorry, and bowed deeply. Similar rules apply in South Korea: witness the way Chou Tzu-yu, a Taiwanese member of Twice, a Korean pop group, was this month hauled in front of the cameras to apologise for having waved a Taiwanese flag on Korean television—an act her managers fear may damage Twice’s sales in China.
Some academics have suggested that shame works better in a system, such as China’s, where maintaining harmony is seen as more important than adherence to a notionally objective idea of right and wrong. But the stocks and the pillory were used in Europe for centuries; in Britain they were abolished only in 1837. And today, in much of the West, the most successful part of the media is that specialising in the shaming of public figures. Similarly, nobody suggests East Asians are immune from guilt. It is the theme, for example, of some of the greatest Japanese films.
The main reason for the spate of confessional television in China is, in fact, political: it is a conscious policy of the regime of Xi Jinping, China’s ruler for the past three years. In an illuminating essay last March, David Bandurski of the China Media Project at the University of Hong Kong pointed out that what he called “China’s confessional politics of dominance” has its roots in the Communist Party’s own history, and in the Soviet influences that helped shape it before it took power.
Confession and self-criticism have been part of its ruling strategy since its revolutionary leaders lived in caves in Yan’an and plotted against their neighbouring cavemen. Virtually everybody in China—even Deng Xiaoping and, almost certainly during Mao’s rule, Mr Xi himself—has written at least one piece of self-criticism. At the other end of the scale, even Banyan has done it, when he was a student and later reporter in China, with a few eloquent self-flagellations—now (he hopes) gathering dust in some forgotten archive.
Imagine a boot stamping on a human face–for ever
In writing self-criticism, the secret is to ponder not truth, justice or cultural norms, but what your reader wants. As Mr Bandurski put it: “As in the past, today’s culture of confession is not about accountability, clean government or a rules-based system. It is about dominance and submission.” Mr Xi’s revival of this culture is not accidental. It is a reminder that his party’s tolerance for dissent is lower now than at any time since the early 1990s. One symptom of this is its insistence that China’s people—and foreigners working in the country—must accept that, even if they cannot love him, Big Brother is right.