BEIJING – The 27-year-old journalist wore a green jail uniform, his head shaved and hands in metal cuffs, when he appeared on national TV and confessed his guilt in bribery allegations. And he had yet to be charged with anything.
"I willingly admit my crime, and I repent it," Chen Yongzhou said in footage aired on the state broadcaster China Central Television. He said he took money while a reporter at a metropolitan newspaper in southern China in exchange for running several stories smearing a company that makes heavy machinery.
It was the latest of several high-profile, televised confessions, a new tactic by Chinese authorities attempting to scrub information they deem harmful, illegal or false from the public domain, especially from the Internet. The confessions have come alongside a propaganda campaign warning against relaying false information, and new penalties for reposting untrue information in social media.
Critics warn that the government is trying to curb public speech, and legal and journalism scholars say the airing of confessions before court trials tramples on China's rule of law.
"The street parades of yesterday have become television parades of today," Chinese University of Political Science and Law professor He Bing lamented on his microblog. He was alluding to China's Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s, when mobs denounced and punished suspected wrongdoers without due process.
This time, police and state media appear to be working together. Police detain the suspect and get a confession. Then the interrogation video footage — mostly likely filmed by police — gets aired on the country's most powerful state broadcaster before a court gets to hear the case, and sometimes even before charges are filed — such as with Chen, who was charged four days after his televised confession.
The practice has been highly selective, with clear political overtones.
"I don't think this has anything to do with the trials at all," said Carl Minzner, a professor at Fordham Law School in New York. "Rather, these are experiments with using public confessions on state television — completely independently of any legal proceedings — as a mechanism to send political warnings to the rest of Chinese society."
Said He Bing in a phone interview: "The political movement has overtaken the law."
Legal scholars say evidence gathered during the police investigation should remain confidential by law until the probe is closed. They question on what grounds police have given CCTV access to suspects in detention or video footage of their interrogations. They asked what's behind CCTV's decision to air the self-incriminating footage. Some have raised the possibility of coerced confessions.
"To declare suspects guilty before court trials, CCTV has not only violated the professional code but also China's existing law," said Chen Lidan, a journalism professor at Renmin University in Beijing.
In at least one case, the lawyer of a suspect said his client never accepted an interview with CCTV but believed the police edited, compiled and shared the footage from the interrogations with the broadcaster.
"For the police to do that, it is completely illegal," said Yang Mingkua, lawyer for the environmentalist and popular microblogger Dong Rubin.
CCTV did not respond to faxed questions about the confessions. Police in the four cities where such confessions have been filmed either could not be reached or did not respond to media requests.
In one of the first prominent cases, Chinese-American investor Charles Xue was detained by police on suspicion of engaging in prostitution. It has become clear that Xue has been targeted in a government effort to discredit liberal-minded microbloggers who tend to advocate values such as democracy and freedom.
Xue urged other popular microbloggers to draw a lesson from him and expressed his support for more governmental regulations over online discourse. But first he was seen on CCTV confessing about his escapades with prostitutes, drawing public snickers.
"According to my recollection, there has been six to seven times when I had sex with more than two prostitutes at once. Most recently, a female named A-Jie brought two other prostitutes, and I had sex with them at the same time," he said as if reading off a prepared script. "Altogether, I paid 3,000 yuan ($500)."
Xue remains in detention, but there has been no official word on whether he has been charged since his last television appearance on Sept. 15.
Then it was the turn for the environmentalist Dong Liangjie, who in September said on CCTV that he posted false allegations online, including one about contraceptive drugs in tap water. He was detained on suspicion of provoking trouble at the time of the confession, but it is unclear if he's been charged since then.
In October, Dong Rubin — the other environmentalist — said on the national network that he had taken money to make his clients look good online. A voice-over said Dong had fabricated rumors and purchased fake accounts to help spread them. In the video, Dong — with his head shaved and hands cuffed — was seen in a yellow vest issued by a detention center in the southwestern city of Kunming. He was then charged with providing false capital in business registration. His lawyer, Yang, said Dong did not admit any crime.
Also in October, a freelance journalist and popular microblogger appeared on TV when he was charged with blackmailing. "This is an ugly thing," Ge Qiwei said of his offense. He appeared much as Dong had — hands cuffed, yellow vest — though in his case the vest was issued by a detention center in the city of Hengyang in the southern province of Hunan.
Chinese authorities have deployed a similar tactic in another public campaign this year against alleged bribes made by foreign pharmaceutical companies to boost sales. They aired footage of a police interrogation in which a drug company executive confessed to the wrongdoing.
"Such parading is clearly a violation of due process, and it shows how the party propaganda is prevailing over those who seek to promote the rule of law," said political scientist Yang Dali of the University of Chicago.