The Debate | Opinion

Another Day, Another Forced Confession on Chinese Television

Simon Cheng’s TV “confession” reveals the truth about China’s coercive legal system.

By Peter Humphrey for
Another Day, Another Forced Confession on Chinese Television
Credit: Illustration by Catherine Putz

Last week I wrote a lengthy article about my fight against Beijing’s abusive practice of using forced and falsified televised confessions extracted from prisoners under duress and torture to pervert the course of justice. I remarked that since my unprecedented filing of a regulatory complaint against Chinese state television in London on November 23 a year ago, China had not paraded another foreigner on TV in this manner.

At almost the same moment that my article was published in The Diplomat, I was proved wrong.

Chinese television aired a crude video clip of Simon Cheng, a former U.K. Consulate worker in Hong Kong, “confessing” to some peculiar alleged crimes. Cheng had vanished during a business trip to Shenzhen, across the border from Hong Kong, in August. He was detained incognito and released a fortnight or so later after a diplomatic contest with London.

The broadcast was carried by CGTN, the international offshoot of China Central Television (CCTV), a propaganda arm of the Chinese Communist Party. CCTV and CGTN were the targets of my 2018 complaint over their broadcasts of me locked in a cage forcibly and falsely “confessing” to crimes I had not committed, in 2013 and 2014.

The British broadcast regulator Ofcom is still investigating my complaint, along with a subsequent complaint filed by Angela Gui, the daughter of publisher Gui Minhai. Ofcom is also, on its own initiative, investigating CGTN’s broadcasting of fake news about Hong Kong.

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The U.K.’s broadcasting law, policed by Ofcom, has crystal clear black and white provisions on issues of privacy, fairness, factuality, and standards of content that must be upheld by all TV outfits licensed to broadcast in the UK. CCTV and CGTN hold licenses to broadcast on two channels to U.K. air waves. Simon Cheng’s fake confession was aired on one of those, China24, while a companion clip was broadcast on CGTN’s YouTube channel.

By airing those clips, not only did CGTN yet again violate the U.K. broadcasting code, and equivalent broadcasting laws in other countries, it also violated Chinese law and the Chinese constitution — which, believe it or not, guarantee fair and transparent trials.

The Simon Cheng broadcast, issued on orders from the highest level in China, was intended to counter a slew of articles in the international media revealing that he was tortured and forced to sign false confessions of soliciting prostitutes. The same rationale — combating accurate reporting in international media about why I had been detained, as well as seeking to falsely incriminate me — was also the reason for my own false TV confession in 2013.

Apart from being illegal, the Cheng broadcast was also revealing in ways that his Chinese police captors and tormentors may not have realized — or cared about — at the time.

First, Cheng’s brutal treatment tells us much about the Chinese dictatorship’s approach to justice. His mistreatment, globally decried as a human rights abuse, and the false charges against him absolutely typify the Chinese police methodology — both by the Public Security Bureau (the police) and the Ministry of State Security. It is fully representative of their coercive and abusive legal system. To me, Cheng’s story of torture, which he told to media a few days before the CGTN broadcast, is totally credible because I have been there.

The abuse described by Cheng is the pervasive norm of Chinese police. They know no other way. The Public Security Bureaus and the Ministry of State Security rely exclusively on forcing confessions and statements from detainees and from so-called witnesses to obtain a conviction at any cost. They use menace, duress, and torture rather than any forensic or real police investigative skills. The entire legal system in China is one of coercive force, not of judicial process.

When I was a prisoner, I was interrogated every day by multiple interrogators. During interrogation I was always locked inside a steel cage, restrained in a metal chair, in handcuffs, with no legal counsel present. My thumb was then pressed into red seal ink, forcing me to thumbprint statements that bore little relation to what I had said.

While in detention, the authorities do everything to crush the human spirit in order to extort a confession, which is then used to justify a detention that has nothing to do with whatever charge they publicly announce.

They hold the prisoner in sordid conditions, without civilized hygiene facilities, without heating or air conditioning, without hot water, in crowded unfurnished cells that are freezing in winter and like an oven in summer. They withhold proper nutrition and medical treatment, block access to lawyers when it is most needed, and bar contact with family — no phone calls and no correspondence. Lights are on 24/7, preventing sleep, and detainees are forced to squat for hours on end, with guards yelling at them all the time.

Detainees in so-called pre-trial detention centers are subjected to what is effectively a punishment regime from day one and treated as guilty before any charges, indictment or trial, even though China’s own “laws” provide for the presumption of innocence before proven guilty by a court. That legal safeguard is a gross fallacy.

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With non-citizens, during interrogations, they also often try to get the prisoner to admit to false charges of espionage. They did this to me.  Chinese authorities have also done this to the two Canadians being held in Beijing for the past year, Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig. Predictably, they did this to Simon Cheng.

They tried to get him to admit (falsely) that the U.K. was funding and organizing the Hong Kong protest movement, and thus undermining Chinese national security, a capital offense. In my case, they tried to charge me with spying in Xinjiang, because of remarks in a country risk analysis report written by one of my colleagues for our clients. It was pathetic. I resisted and luckily destroyed these accusations very quickly.

When the police grabbed Cheng at the frontier checkpoint turnstiles, they told him his arrest was on “orders from the top.” It is not the norm for a person suspected of soliciting a prostitute to be arrested on “orders from the top,” code for high-level Chinese leadership. From the very beginning, this slip of the tongue made it clear this was not about prostitution.

The police thus inadvertently disclosed that the charge against Cheng of soliciting prostitution was utter nonsense. Everybody in China knows that only the organizing of prostitution is a real crime in China. Brothel keepers, pimps, and human traffickers who are not protected by the PSB get stiff prison terms. But soliciting a prostitute in China is a minor offense that usually earns a smack on the wrist, just a few weeks in detention, and rarely goes to court.

The exception is when the detainee has been a special target of the regime all along, or the target of some kind of revenge action by somebody with friends in the police, and then the prostitution charge is just a pretext for victimization.

That was the case when the critical American political blogger Charles Xue Manzi was paraded on Chinese television in 2013. And this is the case with Simon Cheng. He was targeted as a means to attack the U.K., a critic of the harsh anti-democracy crackdown in Hong Kong.

To justify the charges against Cheng, CGTN aired footage from a surveillance video showing him transacting at a reception desk and following a woman down a corridor and into a room. If this was indeed a brothel, it begs the question of how it exists after President Xi Jinping ordered a crackdown against prostitution upon coming to power in late 2012. And neither CGTN nor the authorities have explained why it was not the brothel that was subjected to “legal action” but one particular visitor among the thousands who use this house of ill repute every month.

In addition, the authorities as reported by CGTN have admitted they had Cheng under surveillance for days. The PSB would never expend such resources on somebody who is just suspected of visiting prostitutes. They would only go to this effort if the person was a target for some other reason.

In this case, Cheng was likely surveilled because they wanted a pretext to arrest and rough up someone working for the British. In other words, he was a scapegoat, singled out because of his employment at the Consulate. His detention was classic Chinese diplomatic-hostage taking aimed at punishing Hong Kong’s former master.

What China has done through this incident, aided and abetted by state television, is to prove for the world to see that there is no transparency, fairness, or genuine due process in China.

Former British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt has called on the U.K. government to issue a British passport to Simon Cheng because his life is now in danger.

I would also urge Ofcom to investigate Cheng’s subjection to forced and falsified televised confession aired by CGTN on UK air waves.

Peter Humphrey has been a China specialist for 44 years. He is an Associate in Research of Harvard University’s Fairbank Center and a Research Affiliate of King’s College London. He was a foreign correspondent for 20 years, 17 of them with Reuters. He later spent 15 years as an anti-fraud due-diligence consultant for Western corporations in China, including 10 years with his own company, ChinaWhys. He spent two years imprisoned in Shanghai on charges of “illegally acquiring personal information,” which have been widely recognized as false.