BEIJING – Journalist Liu Hu says that once he was detained by police the pressure for him to confess was unrelenting. They told him that, unless he confessed, he would stay behind bars longer and his wife would abandon him.
They cajoled him, deprived him of sleep, and kept him away from lawyers and relatives. They even recruited fellow inmates to persuade him to admit his guilt in accusations that he had deliberately spread falsehoods and stirred up trouble online.
"Under such circumstances, most people will give in and admit their guilt," said Liu, who spent almost a year in detention and only recently had his name cleared when prosecutors decided not to bring any charges against him.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Liu recounted how the police — in cooperation with the Chinese state's propaganda machine — try to draw out confessions and then air them on state television to shame suspects and sway public perceptions ahead of their trials.
Although a clear violation of Chinese law, the tactics have become popular since 2013 under the sanction of authorities eager to shape public opinion. Police coerce the confessions, which are filmed and made to appear voluntary, and then are aired on China's main state broadcaster CCTV. There have been at least 17 cases of televised confessions in the past two years.
The first batch of people targeted were bloggers such as Chinese-American investor Charles Xue, who had a broad audience and made a habit of reposting articles questioning food and environmental safety. He was accused of using prostitutes and his televised confession including details of hiring several prostitutes at the same time. Since then, journalists, social activists and rights lawyers have appeared in such televised confessions as the Communist Party-led government cranks up its crackdown on speech and civil society.
Public support for the defendants typically wanes following such televised comments, and only a few voices linger to question the legitimacy of the confessions.
A written request to the Ministry of Public Security for comment on these alleged police practices was not answered. Chinese laws forbid coercion of confessions, but human rights groups and victims say the practice — and even the use of physical torture — is common.
Prominent journalist Gao Yu, now serving a seven-year prison term for leaking state secrets, was shown on state television confessing in 2014, but she later told a court that the police forced the confession by holding her son hostage.
"Police transcripts show Gao Yu was warned to cooperate with police or she would cause troubles for her loved ones," her lawyer Shang Baojun said. The court rejected the confession but still convicted Gao, in a case widely believed to be punishment for Gao's outspokenness.
Peter Humphrey, a British man convicted of illegally obtaining information and later released on medical grounds and deported from China, said Chinese authorities withheld medical treatment for his prostate problems to pressure him to make his televised confession in 2013.
"Prison officers deliberately obstructed my access to appropriate medical attention, for my prostate and other health problem," Humphrey said in an interview with the Guardian newspaper.
Liu, the journalist, was taken from his home in the southwestern city of Chongqing in August 2013 after he blew the whistle on several corrupt officials in postings on social media.
"Police came to me and asked me to cooperate with them, and told me to repeat back to them the words they would say to me. But I'm not very good at copying others," said Liu, who was conditionally released last year but had his name cleared only this month.
"They told me my conviction was a foregone conclusion but it would be up to me how long I would stay in prison," Liu recalled. "They told me that my wife would run away with somebody else if I was in prison for a long time. They tried to scare me by suggesting my career and family were on the line."
He said he was denied visits from his family and, initially, his lawyers. News programs were turned off, and the detention center offered no legal books, Liu said.
Police folded up sheets of paper and showed him only the legal clause that made his online posts appear to be illegal, Liu said. "Without seeing the context, I started to doubt myself," Liu said.
Long, frequent and late-night interrogations were used to try to break his will, he said, recalling more than 70 interrogations in the first several months. Once he was interrogated for nearly 12 hours, and twice he was called in for interrogations that began late in the evening and continued through the morning, Liu said.
Police recruited inmates to pose as friends to help him weigh the pros and cons with the intention to persuade him to admit guilt, he said.
And although he was detained over his online comments, which Liu believes offended an official close to a high-ranking policeman, the police also appeared determined to find evidence of other crimes, he said.
"There might have been as many as 300 people trying to dig up dirt on me," Liu said. "They went back to my reporting notes over the past 10 years and traveled to faraway provinces such as Yunnan and Shaanxi to meet with people I have interviewed, to find out if I ever did anything improper, such as asking money."
Because he has reported on legal issues, Liu said he knew he could wait until his day in court to strike a bargain with the judge, and that his lawyers — once he was allowed to see them — reassured him that the online remarks questioning corrupt officials violated no law.