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March 3, 2012

China's popular reality show: "Interviews Before Execution"

China tvThis lengthy Daily Mail piece tells the remarkable story of a remarkable hit on Chinese television.  The piece carries this lengthy headline: "The Execution Factor: It was designed as propaganda to deter would-be criminals. Instead interviews on death row have become China's new TV hit."  Here are excerpts:

With her silk scarves and immaculate make-up, Ding Yu looks every inch the modern television presenter. Indeed, for the past five years she has hosted a hugely successful prime-time show in China which has a devoted following of 40 million viewers every Saturday night.

But while in Britain the weekend evening entertainment will be The X Factor or Strictly Come Dancing, Ms Ding’s show features harrowing -- some would say voyeuristic -- footage of prisoners confessing their crimes and begging forgiveness before being led away to their executions.  The scenes are recorded sometimes minutes before the prisoners are put to death, or in other cases when only days of their life remain.

The glamorous Ms Ding conducts face-to-face interviews with the prisoners, who have often committed especially gruesome crimes. Her subjects sit in handcuffs and leg chains, guarded by warders.  She warms up with anodyne questions about favourite films or music, but then hectors the prisoners about the violent details of their crimes and eventually wrings apologies out of them.

She promises to relay final messages to family members, who are usually not allowed to visit them on death row. The cameras keep rolling as the condemned say a farewell message and are led away to be killed by firing squad or lethal injection....

Officials in the ruling Communist Party regard the series as a propaganda tool to warn citizens of the consequences of crime.  Inmates are selected for Ms Ding by judiciary officials who pick out what they consider suitable cases to ‘educate the public’.  So far, the show’s makers claim, only five condemned prisoners who were asked have refused to be interviewed.

Convicted criminals in China can be put to death for 55 capital crimes, ranging from theft to crimes against the state.  However, the show focuses exclusively on murder cases, conspicuously avoiding any crimes that might have political elements.  The case that has drawn the largest number of viewers so far is that of Bao Rongting, an openly gay man who was condemned to death for murdering his mother and then violating her dead body....

The series has made a household name of Ms Ding, who is married and has a young son. She is often recognised in the street while doing her shopping with her family.  Denying her show is exploitative, she said: ‘Some viewers might consider it cruel to ask a criminal to do an interview when they are about to be executed.  On the contrary, they want to be heard.  When I am face-to-face with them I feel sorry and regretful for them.  But I don’t sympathise with them, for they should pay a heavy price for their wrongdoing.  They deserve it.’...

Lu Peijin, the boss of TV Legal Channel in Henan province, said Ms Ding came up with the concept for the show and he agreed immediately, but that getting approval from officials was a long process.  ‘I thought it was a great idea right away,’ said Mr Lu, who said that the stated aim of the show was not to entertain but to ‘inform and educate according to government policy.  We want the audience to be warned,’ he said. ‘If they are warned, tragedies might be averted.  That is good for society.’

I am intrigued and fascainated by the plausible suggestion that many condemned prisoners might want this kind of last chance to be heard.  Also notable is the suggestion that educative and deterrence goals of the death penalty might be served by this kind of reality show.  And, I cannot help but wonder if somewhere Nancy Grace is thinking about how she might develop a US version of this show.

March 3, 2012 at 11:32 PM | Permalink


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Because of the low rate of bastardy in China, criminals are still ashamed. In the US, the criminal would revel in the crime, and it would appear glamorous. There would be immediate copycat crimes the following week. All executions should be carried out in secret. To have an audience of 40 million is tremendously rewarding. In the US, she would not be able to sit so close without getting sexually attacked and otherwise abused. The criminals would know they have 20 more years of appeals. Why not have fun on TV?

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Mar 3, 2012 11:51:03 PM

It's interesting that what an introverted society (china) chooses to reveal is what an extroverted society (usa) chooses to conceal.

Posted by: justmeagain | Mar 4, 2012 12:42:13 AM

WOW!!! Communist China as a pattern for western democracies! What next? Iran? North Korea?

Posted by: claudio giusti | Mar 4, 2012 6:10:37 AM

"On the contrary, they want to be heard. When I am face-to-face with them I feel sorry and regretful for them. But I don’t sympathise with them, for they should pay a heavy price for their wrongdoing. They deserve it.’..."

It's refreshing to see someone unqualifiedly and unflinchingly support the notion that people can forfeit their right to live due to their actions.

While I agree with her that these condemned deserve their fate, I don't believe that the Chinese government has any right to impose the death penalty. The death penalty derives its legitimacy from the democratic process, not the decrees of unaccountable thugs.

Posted by: federalist | Mar 4, 2012 9:34:23 AM

Another example which shows that mankind isn't civilized - I'm convinced in Western Europe or in the US people would watch this show, too.

Posted by: Joachim Kübler | Mar 4, 2012 10:56:49 AM

Sounds like the traditional ceremony at executions, where the prisoners made last statements, often including statements of regret. We see a taste of that in "True Grit."

Posted by: Joe | Mar 4, 2012 11:53:12 AM

Voyeuristic is right. Kind of like a public execution in front of millions.

Posted by: Lee | Mar 4, 2012 2:48:22 PM

Enjoy your objective fascination, professor.

Posted by: Anon | Mar 4, 2012 3:40:37 PM

Sounds like Panem.

Posted by: katniss | Mar 4, 2012 4:55:51 PM

Communist China as a pattern for western democracies!

Posted by: Thomas Sabo IE | Mar 5, 2012 2:12:35 AM

I think requiring somebody to speak to Nancy Grace for 10 minutes would violate the Eighth Amendment.

Posted by: Res ipsa | Mar 5, 2012 11:29:37 AM

We've already seen this on American TV -- how quickly they forget. Timothy McVeigh did a 60 Minutes interview shortly before his execution to -- get this -- brag about his mass murder and blithely say that the 19 toddlers killed in the Murrah Building day care center were, in a phrase he helped make famous, "collateral damage." The complete remorselessness of the man was mind-boggling, and further justified what was already well justified before then, to wit, his forced departure from this planet.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Mar 5, 2012 12:57:38 PM

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