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On Tuesday, CCTV carried video of Swedish aid worker Peter Dahlin saying he had ‘hurt the feelings of the Chinese people.’

AP

The videos possess a similar aesthetic: a single face, against a plain wall, admitting to wrongdoing and apologizing. Most look directly into the camera, their words of regret, and occasional sobs, then broadcast on CCTV, the central organ of China's state media.

In the past week alone, CCTV has carried two such confessions, part of a broader bid to centralize power and choke dissent, as President Xi Jinping breathes new life into techniques used by Communist leaders in decades past.

Since 2013, televised confessions have been used to humiliate dozens of political foes, including activists and lawyers, booksellers, corporate executives, bloggers and journalists.

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On Tuesday, CCTV carried video of Swedish aid worker Peter Dahlin saying he had "hurt the feelings of the Chinese people."

Earlier, Chinese journalist Gao Yu said she was "very sorry for breaking the laws. I am deeply and sincerely remorseful for my crime." Business reporter Wang Xiaolu was "regretful" for causing "our country and shareholders such great losses just for the sake of sensationalism and eye-catchiness," he said after writing about internal policy debates during a stock-market crash last year. Private investigator Peter Humphrey in 2013 apologized "to the Chinese government" because he "sometimes used illegal means to obtain personal information."

Critics have called their confessions forced accounts that are part truth, part fiction, with the U.S. State Department on Thursday saying it is "concerned about the growing number of people … who appear to have been coerced to confess to alleged crimes on state media."

Often, the confessions occur before a trial or formal charges, and their new prevalence has brought to modern China an echo of the self-criticism and struggle sessions used by the early Chinese Communist Party.

"In many ways Xi Jinping has reached back to the tool bag that Mao used in the 1950s and '60s," said Perry Link, a China specialist at the University of California Riverside. The parallels include "centralized power in the hands of the top leader, promotion of cult status for the leader, use of formulae that cast 'the good' against 'the bad' in absolutist terms," he said.

"Public confession was another."

Chinese authorities have in the past two years arrested hundreds of lawyers and activists, booted professors from classrooms for "mistaken ways of thinking," introduced new jail sentences for spreading online rumours, toppled steeples off churches and launched a "mass line" campaign for officials, bringing back an indoctrination method used by Mao Zedong.

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The revival of public confessions has underscored the degree to which China – for all of its glassy cityscapes, high-tech corporate giants and global financial importance – remains politically little changed from the days of the Communist Revolution.

"The idea that what happens in China today is substantially different from what happened under the more standard Stalinist one-party states is just a delusion," said Frank Dikotter, a historian at the University of Hong Kong who will soon publish a book on the Cultural Revolution.

Public confessions are "a standard technique that runs throughout the Communist world, from Lenin all the way to Xi Jinping. It's really just a display of extraordinary might."

Yet the brand of confession aired recently in China appears to be an innovation of Mr. Xi. Mao's public humiliations were occasionally staged in stadiums but were not, like Stalin's, broadcast on TV or the radio.

Unlike Stalin, however, Mr. Xi's campaign targets foreigners and citizens, rather than merely political rivals. That suggests China's political leadership see its own citizens as its greatest threat.

"What it's really representing is a comprehensive effort to crush any people from speaking out," said Jerome Cohen, director of the U.S.-Asia Law Institute at New York University.

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The irony, he said, is that Mr. Xi's own father, after persecution by the Communist Party that included self-criticism, concluded that "for the party and for China to thrive, they must allow differing opinions," Mr. Cohen said.

"And nothing could be more different from his view than the current view, which is systematically and now cruelly repressive."

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