Death Row TV (May 2012)

This week the BBC will be showing their documentary examining China’s most recent take on the tired concept of reality TV. This is not yet another show concerned with documenting the excesses of a group of young people for entertainment, nor is it yet another talent show to provide a platform for the talented and attention seeking, rather it is the the newest piece of government propaganda. Every Saturday night, an estimated 40 million Chinese citizens tune in to watch ‘Interviews Before Execution’, a show which sees the glamorous host talking to convicted murderers on death row, often immediately before they are led away to be executed, either by firing squad or lethal injection.

The ruling Communist Party view the series as propaganda, a way of discouraging crime within the society. To this end, the prisoners who are allowed to be interviewed are selected by judiciary officials, who choose cases which will best ‘educate the public.‘

As terrible and shocking a concept as this sounds, it is difficult to fully express the true horror of these interviews with words alone. The interviews often start out in an extremely trite fashion, with interviewees being asked about favourite foods and movies, if it weren’t for the shackles around the prisoner’s legs and wrists, one might almost forget that this person had minutes to live. This opening part of the interview is soon concluded however, as the host, Ms Ding Yu, who has herself become a household name across China, moves on to more pressing matters. It is here that the propaganda element of the show finds it’s true expression. As prisoners are forced to relive and retell their crimes they are judged once more, by Ms Ding, whose lack of sympathy for those before her verges on the psychopathic. “When I am face-to-face with them I feel sorry and regretful for them. But I don’t sympathize with them, for they should pay a heavy price for their wrongdoing. They deserve it.”

One might be forgiven for asking why anyone would wish to spend their final moments being interviewed as a propaganda piece for the state which is about to execute them, but the interview itself is often not what the prisoners want. In China, death row inmates usually are not allowed to see their families before their execution. The interview is therefore their only chance to speak out to their families. This is the truly exploitative element of the show. It captures the pure, unbridled suffering of these people, moments before their death, as they attempt to communicate with their families, whom they know they will never see again. It is unsurprisingly common for interviewees to weep, whilst others throw themselves to the floor screaming and begging for forgiveness, all before an eager audience of some 40 million viewers.

The most harrowing episode of all seems to have been the case of a young man, still in his twenties, who was about to be executed for murder. He was one of the rare exceptions who was given permission to see his parents before his execution and his tearful reunion with his parents was broadcast for all to see. Reportedly, he fell to his knees and begged his father’s forgiveness before being led away to be executed. His mother’s final words to him as he is dragged away by prison guards were “Go peacefully. It is following the government’s orders.” The show has here fulfilled its purpose. The human tragedy of the crime has been emphasized, as has the horror of what it is to murder someone, but most importantly the government are still the benevolent institution who should, and clearly must, be obeyed.

What does it say about a modern society that it is not only willing but eager to watch people suffer alone, cut off from their family, week in week out, being judged moments before death by a television presenter, always with the same outcome? How perverse have curiosities grown that the absolute depths of human suffering is now prime-time television? To call this show voyeuristic and exploitative hardly does it justice. It is a symptom of the rapid desensitization which modern society has undergone in recent years, the very existence of this programme must raise questions about the presenter, producers and indeed the Chinese government who facilitate this programme. As disturbing as the existence of such a show is, there is undoubtedly something much much more disturbing. It’s popularity. It is easy to write off the individuals behind this show as a few bad apples what is more difficult to confront is idea the 40 million strong viewership this show enjoys every week.

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