criminals. Instead interviews on death row have become China's new TV hit
With her silk scarves and immaculate make-up, Ding Yu looks every inch the
modern television presenter. Indeed, for the past 5 years she has hosted a
hugely successful prime-time show in China which has a devoted following of
40?million viewers every Saturday night.
But while in Britain the weekend evening entertainment will be The X Factor or
Strictly Come Dancing, Ms Ding’s show features harrowing – some would say
voyeuristic – footage of prisoners confessing their crimes and begging
forgiveness before being led away to their executions.
The scenes are recorded sometimes minutes before the prisoners are put to
death, or in other cases when only days of their life remain.
The glamorous Ms Ding conducts face-to-face interviews with the prisoners, who
have often committed especially gruesome crimes. Her subjects sit in handcuffs
and leg chains, guarded by warders. She warms up with anodyne questions about
favourite films or music, but then hectors the prisoners about the violent
details of their crimes and eventually wrings apologies out of them.
She promises to relay final messages to family members, who are usually not
allowed to visit them on death row. The cameras keep rolling as the condemned
say a farewell message and are led away to be killed by firing squad or lethal
Having begun life five years ago on a TV channel in Henan province in central
China, Interviews Before Execution quickly became a hit with viewers and was
given a prime-time Saturday night slot.
Scenes from the series will be shown in Britain for the 1st time next week in a
BBC?2 documentary. The BBC describes the Chinese series as an ‘extraordinary
chat show’ which has made Ms Ding a national celebrity.
Ms Ding has covered more than 250 cases in Interviews Before Execution. She
told a child killer: ‘Everyone should hate you.’ Her interviewees also included
a jealous divorcé who stabbed his ex-wife in front of her parents.
In one scene, a prisoner in his 20s falls to his knees before his parents, who
have been allowed to see him. He pleads: ‘Father, I was wrong. I’m sorry.’
Moments later, his parents see him about to be led away to his death. His
distraught mother apologises for beating him once as a child and implores her
son: ‘Go peacefully. It’s following government’s orders.’
Prison officers then push her aside and drag him away.
In another scene, a firing squad of about 20 men is briefed by a senior officer
before executing condemned prisoners. ‘Some criminals will be very tough and
difficult. That means they’ll be dangerous,’ the officer tells them.
Officials in the ruling Communist Party regard the series as a propaganda tool
to warn citizens of the consequences of crime.
Inmates are selected for Ms Ding by judiciary officials who pick out what they
consider suitable cases to ‘educate the public’. So far, the show’s makers
claim, only 5 condemned prisoners who were asked have refused to be
Convicted criminals in China can be put to death for 55 capital crimes, ranging
from theft to crimes against the state. However, the show focuses exclusively
on murder cases, conspicuously avoiding any crimes that might have political
The case that has drawn the largest number of viewers so far is that of Bao
Rongting, an openly gay man who was condemned to death for murdering his mother
and then violating her dead body.
3 extra episodes were devoted to his story as viewing figures soared.
Homosexuality is still regarded as taboo in most of China, and the sensational
trailers described his interviews as ‘shining a light on a mysterious group of
people in our country’.
When Bao was executed, no family members turned up to say farewell. His final
conversation before being led to his death was on camera with a decidedly wary
Ms Ding, who admitted to being unsettled by his sexuality. In a remarkable
scene, he asks if she will do him a last favour by shaking his hand before he
dies. She hesitates, before lightly touching his hand with her finger and then
pulling it away.
She later confessed to being unsure if she should have shaken his hand, saying
with obvious distaste: ‘There was a lot of dirt under his nails. For a long
time there was a feeling in this finger. I can’t describe that feeling.’
The series has made a household name of Ms Ding, who is married and has a young
son. She is often recognised in the street while doing her shopping with her
Denying her show is exploitative, she said: ‘Some viewers might consider it
cruel to ask a criminal to do an interview when they are about to be executed.
On the contrary, they want to be heard.
‘When I am face-to-face with them I feel sorry and regretful for them. But I
don’t sympathise with them, for they should pay a heavy price for their
wrongdoing. They deserve it.’
However, she admits to being haunted by those she has interviewed. She once
woke on a train in the middle of the night and, looking out of her window, saw
a vision of the executed prisoners she had interviewed standing in a line
beside her carriage.
‘Their faces were so real and all of them were standing there looking at me,’
she said. ‘I was horrified – I have heard so many cases. It is really not good
for me at all. I have too much rubbish in my heart.’
Lu Peijin, the boss of TV Legal Channel in Henan province, said Ms Ding came up
with the concept for the show and he agreed immediately, but that getting
approval from officials was a long process.
‘I thought it was a great idea right away,’ said Mr Lu, who said that the
stated aim of the show was not to entertain but to ‘inform and educate
according to government policy’.
‘We want the audience to be warned,’ he said. ‘If they are warned, tragedies
might be averted. That is good for society.’
Mr Lu said Ms Ding’s feminine image endears her to both audiences and the
prisoners she interviews. ‘We say she is the beauty with the beasts,’ he said.
China is believed to kill more prisoners every year than the rest of the world
combined, and the communist state has been widely criticised over its use of
the death penalty.
There is no presumption of innocence under Chinese law. The condemned are often
put to death as little as 7 days after their convictions are confirmed by the
The exact number of executions is a state secret, but it has been estimated
that about 2,000 prisoners a year are executed in China, although rates are
believed to have fallen in recent years.
China is concerned that the BBC documentary will damage the country’s image
overseas and lead to fresh accusations of human rights abuses. Ms Ding and her
colleagues have been banned from giving any further interviews.
Officials are particularly upset because next week’s BBC broadcast comes at a
politically sensitive time – only days after China’s pseudo-parliament, the
National People’s Congress, begins its annual session in the capital Beijing.
A Chinese TV executive who works on Interviews Before Execution said: ‘When the
party officials realised the extent of the footage the BBC would use, they were
very concerned about it.
‘Although the documentary was approved, Ms Ding and her colleagues have been
told off for giving the BBC team too much access. They have now been instructed
not to give any further interviews to foreign media.
‘It’s fair to say the BBC programme has created a problem for us. Officials
here do not want the foreign media saying there are no human rights in China,
particularly at this sensitive time politically.’
Reached by phone at her TV station in Zhengzhou, the capital of Henan province,
Ms Ding told The Mail on Sunday: ‘I’m afraid I can’t speak to you about this.
Our show involves a very sensitive subject involving human rights.
‘We have been instructed not to accept any further interviews about the
programme, particularly with foreign media.’
A BBC spokeswoman said the programme was made by a Chinese production company
and then acquired and revised in accordance with BBC guidelines.
The spokeswoman said: ‘The programme provides a revealing insight into Chinese
attitudes to the death penalty. By showing rare footage of China’s death row
alongside interviews with convicts, judges and journalists, it opens up an
aspect of China that is normally hidden from the world.’
(source: Daily Mail)