The Debate | Opinion

Countering China’s Forced Confessions

Peter Humphrey was a victim of China’s practice of airing forced confessions on state television – and he’s fighting back.

By Peter Humphrey for
Countering China’s Forced Confessions

FILE – In this Friday, Nov. 23, 2018 file photo, British investigator Peter Humphrey addresses the media during a press conference in London. Britain’s communications regulator says on Wednesday, May 8, 2019 it’s investigating China’s state TV channel over a complaint about fairness and privacy. The investigation follows British corporate investigator Peter Humphrey’s complaint against CCTV and its international division, China Global Television, for airing his forced confession when he was imprisoned in China, which he said violated U.K. broadcasting rules. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein, file)

Credit: AP Photo/Frank Augstein

One year ago, on November 23, 2018, senior cadres at China’s Communist Party-controlled, state-owned broadcaster CCTV (China Central Television) were toiling away in their iconic Beijing headquarters on plans to launch a big European hub in London. It was a Friday and CCTV officials inside the headquarters off Beijing’s Third Ring Road, locally nicknamed the “pants” because of its signature two-legged structure, looked forward to a nice weekend’s rest. But the day ended on a different note from the tune it began with.

That day in London, eight hours behind Beijing time, I had filed a complaint to the broadcast regulator Ofcom against CCTV, alleging violations of the Broadcasting Code for extracting and airing forced and falsified confessions from prisoners in China, which were then beamed worldwide including on U.K. airwaves. The aim of this legal complaint was to bring penalties upon CCTV, which could include stripping it of its U.K. broadcasting licenses.

The shocked bigwigs at CCTV in Beijing at that time included Shen Haixiong, a lifelong Communist Party hack who had become head of CCTV and a deputy minister only half a year earlier, after his predecessor Nie Chenxi departed amid a scandal. Shen reports to China’s propaganda minister and President Xi Jinping himself.

There was also Jiang Heping, a sports journalist with Chinese military background who had climbed the greasy political pole of the CCTV propaganda machine to become head of CCTV’s new international arm, China Global Television Network (CGTN).

Also employed at CCTV was Dong Qian, a senior anchor who had presented multiple “interviews” extracted from prisoners under conditions of duress and torture and aired as “confessions.” She is also likely to be subject to complaints from victims of this practice.

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Two other characters in the cast were Ma Jing, who was head of CCTV/CGTN’s new America hub in Washington, and Liu Ge, the deputy director of CCTV News, who was about to become leader of the planned new Europe hub in London.

Then there was Jim Laurie, an American veteran of TV news who had worked  mostly in Asia for Western outfits — including three decades at NBC and ABC — until he became a consultant to the CCTV propaganda apparatus, as well as Al Jazeera.

“When your complaint landed in their tray, Jim was the man who the Chinese executives consulted,” a source who was there that day but no longer works for CGTN has told me, requesting anonymity. Laurie was “the most senior foreigner at CCTV.”

“I don’t know what they said but there was panic all round. They went into emergency meetings for the whole weekend,” the insider said.

The following week China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman issued a pithy comment suggesting that the U.K. should respect “the freedom of expression.”

My Ofcom complaint cited violations of the Broadcasting Code’s Fairness and Privacy provisions. It targeted two filmings of me scripted and directed by the Chinese police while I was a prisoner, held under false charges in conditions of duress amounting to torture. One video, in August 2013, was filmed inside a steel cage before I was indicted, tried or convicted of any crime. Another was made in July 2014, once again was before I was tried or convicted.

After the first forced filming, protests by the U.K. Foreign Office, who told Shanghai’s police chief the case against me would have been “thrown out” if this happened in a country under the rule of law, were ignored. I have a record of the FO complaint.

My Ofcom complaint was not the only one. It soon mushroomed into five. During the two months or so after I filed, it was followed by four others with similar charges against CCTV and CGTN. One came from Angela Gui, daughter of the Swedish-Chinese dissident publisher Gui Minhai, who was forced to make several such appearances on Chinese TV. One was from Hong Kong bookseller Lam Wing Kee, who had been abducted from Hong Kong to the mainland, where he was also forcibly filmed.

Another came from Swedish human rights activist Peter Dahlin, who had been detained and forcibly filmed in 2016 after providing training support to Chinese defense lawyers, and who has now launched a campaign against CCTV’s abuses. Finally, a joint complaint was signed by all four individuals and by Dahlin’s NGO Safeguard Defenders alleging violations of the Code’s Standards regulations, a separate area of governance.

“It was like a bomb went off, and then more bombs followed,” said the inside source.

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One year later, it’s clear my complaint has had an impact. It triggered worldwide media attention that heaped shame upon CCTV and its masters and turned the issue into a high-profile human rights issue. It spread awareness of this form of abuse and spotlighted the fact that the use of televised forced confessions had intensified dramatically after Xi Jinping came to power in late 2012. This was his doing, his policy.

Forced TV confession was originally something the CCP regime did only to Chinese people, not to foreigners. Then in 2013, they began to parade foreign citizens on CCTV, too. I was the first “real foreigner” to get this treatment, along with my wife Yingzeng Yu, an American citizen. Others followed. Safeguard Defenders estimates CCTV and stations in China’s provinces have helped extract and have aired hundreds of such confession broadcasts

Since I filed my complaint a year ago, we have not seen another foreigner paraded on TV this way, perhaps suggesting that CCTV and its masters know they are in trouble and their global TV expansion plans could hit the rocks. They certainly had some other potential candidates, such as two Canadian consultants arrested last December accused of spying, whom they could have forced to appear on CCTV, but did not.

In another blow, in the United States, CGTN has since been forced to register itself as a “foreign agent” under FARA, a law designed to curb enemy country activity, originally passed during the Nazi era.

Meanwhile, in CCTV headquarters that November weekend in 2018, a foreign national was visiting and due to be signed up as a senior executive in CGTN’s London hub. He decided not to join when he saw my complaint and its implications.

Another senior CGTN executive hired around the time I filed my complaint, Nick Pollard, a veteran of Laurie’s vintage, quit this September as he saw the trouble the broadcaster was getting into through its abusive coverage. More recently, CGTN aired distorted coverage of the Hong Kong unrest this year, which Ofcom is also now probing on its own initiative.

The reaction to the complaint in the U.K. itself was tidal. Not only the nationals, but every regional paper in Britain ran the story, including the U.K. Press Gazette, a newsletter for journalists that takes an interest in media ethics and employment standards. In addition the National Union of Journalists issued a resolution supporting my complaint, condemning CCTV’s practices, discouraging journalists from joining the CGTN venture.

Around the time of my complaint, CCTV was preparing to launch its CGTN European hub in a spanking new business park that China had sunk money into in London’s Chiswick district. They boasted it would have as many as 300 staff, which would have made it bigger than any overseas-stationed foreign news bureau anywhere on Earth.

London media were already making noises at that time about the wisdom and ethics of hosting such a giant Communist Party propaganda outfit on U.K. soil.

One year later, CCTV has still not completed this project as envisoned, although the new hub was reported in August as getting ready for launch. The delay is jeopardizing Xi’s signature policy of spreading Chinese state media influence across the planet.

“CGTN has found it hard to hire the 300 plus journalists they want,” the inside source said. He said they have mustered 120 or so staff.

“A lot of people look at the CGTN hiring adverts with scorn, knowing their background,” one London journalist, who reads the ads, confided. “It makes a bad CV.”

In May, Ofcom announced it had decided to formally investigate my complaint and that of Angela Gui. The complaints of Peter Dahlin and Lam Wing Kee failed to qualify because the CCTV channels involved were not U.K.-licensed channels. The multi-party Standards complaint was not investigated either.

Under Ofcom rules I am not allowed to disclose the contents of investigation correspondence after the filing of the complaint, although the complaint itself was made public at the time of submission. That means I cannot disclose the contents of CCTV’s written response to Ofcom, which I received in July.

My timing for the complaint had nothing to do with the supposed launch date of the new hub, however.

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Since my release from China in mid-2015, I had been battling cancer caused by the denial of medical treatment for it while falsely imprisoned in Shanghai in 2013-2015, as well as undergoing treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and bone, joint, and nerve damage resulting from the ordeal.

Only after my release was I gradually able to find some of the CCTV and English-language CGTN footage aired after they filmed me in two involuntary appearances, one of them in a cage, during my captivity. These videos were presented as confessions – to crimes I had not yet even been indicted or tried for.
I had seen none of this film while in captivity and was now re-traumatized by seeing the lies that they had broadcast. I had to go back into treatment.

In 2018 I discovered the U.K. Broadcasting Code and its regulator Ofcom. I now realized for the first time that I could file a regulatory complaint, with legal force, on grounds of privacy and fairness violations, against Chinese TV for the broadcasts of me that it had aired in the UK.

A scandalous incident in September 2018 was a decisive trigger that finally convinced me to file the complaint. In Birmingham, CCTV’s chief correspondent in London, Kong Linlin, heckled and disrupted a seminar on Hong Kong at the Conservative Party conference, and then slapped a young steward when he asked her to leave, which has landed her in court on assault charges. Seeing Kong’s violent act on film, I seized up in a PTSD attack as I was reminded vividly of the so-called TV journalists who colluded with China’s police to film me inside a cage making a false and forced “confession.”

So I decided to go ahead, and that resulted in the bombshell that landed in Beijing that November day. It was unprecedented in various ways. It was the first complaint of its sort that Ofcom had received about China. It was also the first time an individual anywhere in the world had taken legal action against an arm of the Chinese Communist Party, and this was an action that struck at the heart of Xi’s signature policy of Chinese media expansion and the use of the media in televised forced confessions.

Surprisingly, in China there are some homegrown critics who have also pointed out the illegality of televised forced confessions.

Wang Qinglei, a prominent CCTV journalist in Beijing, was fired in autumn 2013, soon after my first fake TV “confession,” for attacking CCTV’s censorship and airing of forced confessions. “Senior managers are aware that people with a similar mindset to me are by no means rare within CCTV…That’s why they resort to these measures, believing they can control everyone’s beliefs,” he wrote in an open letter after being sacked for posting criticisms on WeChat. “The past two weeks have been disgraceful for our CCTV workers, standards for news have been raped repeatedly by those in power: we avoided legal principles… we use the pubic instruments of the media to ruthlessly bombard the misconduct of a single person… The integrity and professionalism in the news has vanished totally and completely.”

“Our foreign counterparts lose their jobs for not telling the truth. Chinese reporters lose their jobs for telling too much truth,” Liu Xiangnan, a journalist with China’s Economic Observer wrote about Wang’s sacking. “Those who lose their jobs for telling the truth are heroes in this trivial little world.”

Even some courageous Chinese judges have criticized this abuse. “Outside of a court, no one has the right to decide whether someone is guilty of a crime,” said Zhang Liyong, chief judge of the High People’s Court in central China’s Henan province. “The police aren’t qualified to say someone is guilty. Prosecutors aren’t qualified to declare someone guilty. News media are even less qualified to determine guilt.”

In 2016, Zhu Zhengfu, deputy chairman of the All-China Lawyers Association, also criticized the broadcast of forced confessions for undermining the justice system and influencing judges. Zhu warned that the practice would lead to trial by media and give the public the impression that the suspect was guilty. “It would be difficult for the court to find the suspect not guilty amid this kind of public opinion,” he said.

Activists are now looking at some of the individuals involved in forced confessions with a view to further legal actions, they say. Their targets include CCTV personnel, both Chinese and non-Chinese, as well as Chinese police officers from the Public Security Bureau and the Ministry of Public Security, and some politicians.

Activists are also looking at American legal mechanisms whereby they can file complaints against CCTV and CGTN in the United States on similar grounds to my complaint. That would include filing under the global Magnitsky Act with the aim of bringing American sanctions upon offenders.

All the while, my complaint continues to wind its way through the system. Ofcom will next issue what it calls a primary view, and then ask for representations. Its investigation is ongoing, as they say.

Peter Humphrey has been a China specialist for 44 years. He is an external fellow of Harvard University’s Fairbank Center and 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.