Magnus Fiskesjo currently teaches anthropology and Asian studies at Cornell University. He was formerly cultural attaché at Sweden’s embassy in Beijing and director of the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities, in Stockholm.
These days, Canadians worry about their fellow citizens detained in China, without trial.
Meanwhile, the people of Hong Kong are protesting a new extradition law that would make it easy to seize someone and send them to mainland China for trial.
They have seen the forced confessions broadcast by Chinese state TV, in which victims, before any trial, confess to various crimes and then thank their jailers for teaching them a lesson.
This sort of enforced public lie actually points us to the root cause of the current issues with China: the inability of the Communist Party to tolerate any independent voices.
They can’t live with a plurality of opinions, so they are obsessed with censoring everything – and with putting words into people’s mouths.
They are targeting not just their own people but people abroad, as well as companies and even whole countries, cutting off the flow of trade and tourists from China if they displease the regime. Some governments (Norway, Denmark, Spain, etc.) were even coerced into kowtowing and curbing any criticism of China.
Such successes understandably fostered a lot of hubris in the regime.
The forced TV confessions of Gui Minhai, my fellow Swedish citizen and an old friend, are a case in point. A Hong Kong-based publisher, he’s been detained in China without due process for more than 1,400 days. In 2017, they pretended to briefly release him – a cruel ruse often perpetrated on Chinese dissidents – then seized him again from two Swedish diplomats.
Mr. Gui’s Causeway Bay bookstore was targeted because it published books with unofficial stories from behind the scenes in China. The Chinese authorities might have sued; instead they sent agents to seize Mr. Gui while he was on vacation in Thailand. After months of no news, he was shown on Chinese TV and first forced to confess to unrelated wrongdoing (another classic tactic; in his case, a fatal 2003 traffic-accident file that had already been closed at the time but was reopened) before saying he had come “home” by himself. He’s been paraded three times, more than any political prisoner, to pile on confessions about the books he sold. He is now incommunicado, and we are deeply worried about his health. Sweden’s government and the EU keep demanding his freedom.
Four of Mr. Gui’s colleagues were similarly seized and paraded on TV, confessing that they sold books. Their store was closed – a bad omen for Hong Kong, where freedom of expression has been respected. Until now.
But it’s not the end of the story. One of Mr. Gui’s colleagues, Lam Wing-kee, managed to escape and tell the world. His account has been corroborated by many others, both Chinese victims and foreigners such as Peter Humphrey from Britain and Peter Dahlin from Sweden.
Their accounts paint a detailed picture of how the confessions are choreographed, scripted and staged. And it’s partly because of these first-person reports that high courts in Sweden, New Zealand and the Czech Republic recently rejected the possibility of extraditing anyone to China. There can be no fair trials in a country where torture is rampant, the facts don’t matter and Communist Party bosses decide every outcome.
Yet, we see the regime doubling down. For example, China’s ambassador to Sweden has been trash-talking the Swedish victims, Mr. Gui and Mr. Dahlin, and has put himself forward as someone who would never lie under torture – because he never lies. His pretense illustrates the central lie of the regime: a make-believe world protected at any moral price.
But it is worse in the Xinjiang region, in the northwest. In China’s massive new prison-camp system, more than a million ethnic-minority people (Uyghurs, Kazakhs, etc.) are locked up and being “re-educated” – or, in the latest Chinese euphemism, “trained.” Their treatment is rightly identified by outside observers as brainwashing or, more precisely, identity-conversion therapy.
It’s the same formula used in the forced confessions.
Refugee witnesses describe how, all day long, detainees are forced to sing the praises of the Communist Party and leader Xi Jinping and deny their own ethnic identity. They are instructed to stop speaking their native languages and confess to harbouring evil thoughts – even though they are overwhelmingly innocent people guilty only of being different and of practising their religions. There is no legal recourse – only the say-so of party bosses.
The whole Xinjiang region has effectively been turned into a high-tech open-air prison, where the Chinese Communist Party’s fundamental intolerance is operationalized to destroy entire cultures.
A generation of cultural icons has also been disappeared and silenced – hundreds of writers, artists and scholars with a voice of their own, once a thriving community but now targeted as “double-faced.”
The regime can tolerate only one face: the mask of lies they want us all to wear.
If we want to defend human dignity and the pluralism we cherish as the beating heart of our democracies, we have to reject the Chinese Communist Party’s confessions scheme.
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