Wang Yu — previously one of the top lawyers at China’s most successful human rights law firm — sits, hands calmly folded in her lap, poised and resolute as she declares, “I wrote inappropriate things online and accepted interviews with foreign media. For this, I feel ashamed and express remorse . . .I am Chinese and I only accept the Chinese government’s leadership.” Wang Yu proceeds to confess her crimes, renouncing her work, her organization, and her employers. But she isn’t in a courtroom, or under police interrogation — she’s seated on a lawn in a restaurant in Tianjin on a sunny day, a microphone pinned to her collar. It’s an exclusive interview conducted by Oriental Daily, and she’s speaking to the camera, the interviewer hidden off-screen as she announces to the public the error of her ways. It is Wang Yu’s first appearance and her first statement after over a year in detention; she was arrested in July 2015 in a nationwide crackdown on human rights lawyers and activists and charged with subverting state power.
The interview was broadcast on all Chinese media outlets, an eerie but familiar sight for many. The script and style of Wang Yu’s interview mirrors almost exactly a number of recent televised confessions by Chinese dissidents and activists after their detention. Wang Yu is but the latest in a series of broadcasts as President Xi Jinping tightens his grip on dissent in China. This past January, Hong Kong booksellers involved in the publishing of salacious books about China’s party elite appeared on screen admitting to “criminal acts,” months after mysteriously vanishing. Two days later, a Swedish human rights worker professed that he had “undertaken activities . . . in violation of Chinese law, and harmed the government and the people of China.” It’s a pattern that extends back to last summer, when a reporter who wrote about the instability of the stock market was taped confessing to his “irresponsible” article.
These televised confessions seem like relics of a by-gone time — frightening souvenirs of the Cultural Revolution — in which the politics of self-criticism reigned. Self-confession was a favored psychological tool used by Mao Zedong to enforce docility through shame and humiliation. Through these tactics, known as “struggle sessions,” political rivals and class enemies were persecuted and forced to admit to their crimes before a large crowd, who would verbally and physically abuse the victims until they confessed. Mao had intended the process of criticism, reflection, and confession to purify society, and to steer the misguided back to the faith and enlightened ideology of the Party. In one of Mao’s most famous speeches, the 1942 Yan An Talks on Arts and Literature, Mao declared, “The masses too have shortcomings, which should be overcome by criticism and self-criticism within the people’s own ranks.”
Public acts of self-confession were a common established practice in Communist China, but they almost entirely vanished from reform-era politics. The Soviet exercise dissipated alongside the need for strict ideological conformity, just after Mao’s death in 1976 ended the Cultural Revolution and brought on a new era of economic reform. The public hardly ever saw self-criticism and confession under the rule of Xi’s predecessors. Yet, since Xi Jinping assumed office in late 2012, dozens of activists and dissidents have been paraded to confess on television. Xi has reintroduced self-criticism to Chinese politics and public confession to the Chinese criminal justice system. Just a few months into his presidency, immediately after he released a new guideline on official conduct, two letters of self-confession, written by officials who failed to attend a departmental meeting, appeared on the front page of a Party newspaper. In January 2015, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection developed an anti-corruption “task list” that formally included publishing confessions and letters of regret. And last March, an article in Qiushi, the Party’s primary theory journal argued that acts of self-criticism as a form of mass education were necessary to the effectiveness of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), in that they would “carry forward good practices and rooting out bad ones for the good of the people.” Xi has embraced Maoist public self-criticism to reassert the Party’s ideological control, and the education campaign is intensifying. “She was like a pupil reciting an essay in front of a teacher,” Wang’s lawyer said in an interview. “Not a single word is missing from the script.”
But the televised confessions aren’t simply a return to Maoist practices to exert ideological control in a period of increasing dissent and instability. There’s a twist to these public declarations; in addition to the simple template of apology, renunciation of actions, and pledges of allegiance to the Chinese government, the script also forces the confessors to forsake all foreign influences, organizations, and governments. The new confessionals reveal that the influence of foreign ideology is a deep-seated fear of Xi’s, one that he feels he must resort to Maoist psychological tools to combat. There was a xenophobic element to Maoist Communism, but the primary enemy was always the class antagonist, the bourgeoisie, those beholden to traditional Confucian hierarchies. Today, it is foreign, Western ideology that seems to stand in confrontation with the Chinese system. In a world of nongovernmental organizations, foreign correspondents, and global access through the internet, the biggest threat to CCP control is the imposition of Western thought. In his televised confession, Hong Kong bookseller Gui Minhai, who has a dual Swedish-Chinese citizenship, was forced to declare that “Although I now hold the Swedish citizenship, deep down I still think of myself as Chinese. My roots are in China. I hope the Swedish authorities would . . . allow myself to deal with my own issues.” Wang Yu, in her interview, states that she “won’t acknowledge, won’t recognize, and won’t accept” a European human rights award granted to her while she was detained. Xi Jinping is using these televised confessions to reassert a dominant ideology, and in the process, emphasizing that this new Chinese creed stands distinctly in opposition to foreign influences.
As Chinese business and society integrates with the world, Xi has become ever more worried about CCP political dominance and legitimacy. These televised confessions are a response to his insecurities, which are increasingly focused on the intrusion of foreign ideology on Chinese sovereignty. Wang Yu’s words, that she “won’t acknowledge, won’t recognize, and won’t accept,” echo the Chinese government’s statement on the ruling of an international tribunal against China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea. President Xi’s new confessional movement is not only a frightening return to Maoist psychological practices, but also representative of a new ideological campaign: a political narrative of a resurgent Chinese nationalism defined against Western, subversive influences. To be the model Chinese citizen, pure and faithful to the Chinese government, requires the renunciation of everything foreign.