TV Confessions in China an Unsettling New Trend for Executives

By Megha Rajagopalan 2 September 2013

BEIJING — A series of confessions by foreign and local executives on China’s state-controlled television has spurred anxiety among the business community about a trend that some lawyers say makes a mockery of due process.

Confessions have long been part of China’s legal landscape, with petty criminals routinely admitting their guilt on television.

But rarely have senior business figures been put on television in orange prison jumpsuits to confess.

“If involuntary to any degree, the admissibility of the confessions is in question,” said James Zimmerman, a managing partner at law firm Sheppard, Mullin, Richter and Hampton and a former chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce China.

“Parading just-detained criminal defendants in the media is repugnant and reflects political expediency and a rush to judgment,” he said in an e-mail.

Chinese-American venture capitalist Charles Xue appeared on state CCTV on Thursday to confess to visiting prostitutes, a crime in China.

Xue, also known as Xue Manzi, is an online commentator known for making controversial remarks on social and political issues. The US Embassy in Beijing said Washington was aware of his case and was providing consular assistance. It was unclear if Xue had a lawyer.

Last week, Peter Humphrey, a British risk consultant accused of buying and selling private information, apologized to the government on CCTV in a neon orange vest and handcuffs, saying he had sometimes used illegal methods in his work.

Humphrey, who once worked for Reuters, has a lawyer, his family have said without disclosing who it is. The British Foreign Office has expressed concern about Humphrey’s appearance on television before any trial.

Humphrey and his American wife were detained in July, around the same time Chinese police announced they were investigating British drugmaker GlaxoSmithKline for alleged bribery.

The couple’s risk consultancy, ChinaWhys, had done work for GSK, sources familiar with the matter have said.

A Chinese GSK executive arrested in the anti-corruption investigation appeared on CCTV in July to describe how the firm bribed doctors and officials to raise the price of its medicines. GSK has said some of its Chinese executives appeared to have broken the law.

China’s Ministry of Public Security did not respond to a faxed request for comment.

An amendment to China’s criminal procedure law, which took effect at the start of the year, prohibits authorities from forcing anyone to incriminate themselves.

But confessions are coerced out of high- and low-profile offenders alike, criminal law experts said.

Ousted politician Bo Xilai, accused of bribery and abuse of power, said during his trial in August that he had been forced to admit to crimes against his will.

“Even Bo Xilai backtracked on his confession on the grounds that he felt that he was pressured to make a confession in order to get leniency or to maintain his political position,” Zimmerman said.

Justice, Mao-Style

Indeed, suspects often strike deals to confess and apologize in the hope they will receive more lenient punishment.

Three milk powder makers who were investigated as part of a recent antitrust probe into the industry were not fined because, among other things, they carried out “self-rectification,” the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), which regulates prices, said.

If that doesn’t happen, authorities can get heavy-handed.

Reuters reported last month that a senior NDRC official put pressure on some 30 foreign firms at a meeting in late July to confess to any antitrust violations and warned them against using external lawyers to fight accusations from regulators.

Publicizing confessions before a formal criminal process could reflect “a wider trend of returning to Mao-style criminal justice,” said Eva Pils, law professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

During the Mao years, Pils said, “the point of the criminal process wasn’t to determine whether or not the person at its center was guilty—at the time that was practically a foregone conclusion. Rather it was to educate the public—in this case, presumably also a foreign public.”

When it comes to public confessions in politicized cases, the desire to spread propaganda may trump the rule of law.

“This isn’t an issue of the law,” said Chen Ruihua, a law professor at Peking University. “It’s an issue of the media. They want to publicize these cases.”

President Xi Jinping has called China’s fight against corruption crucial to the ruling Communist Party’s survival. Televised confessions help make clear to the public that authorities are tough on graft, legal activists said.

“The Chinese public is very suspicious about any legal process involving corruption, so showing someone on TV confessing is really very powerful,” said Nicholas Bequelin of Human Rights Watch. “But it makes the whole trial look like a farce if people go on TV to confess beforehand.”

The more important issue, Bequelin said, is the message getting sent to foreign investors.

“The signs are unmistakable that the government is cracking the whip against foreign companies.”