China, not a country known for subtlety, has turned a mirror on ourselves by taking two of the most beloved forms of American entertainment and combining it into one: reality television and the death penalty. And they’ve struck viewership gold, with 40 million viewers every Saturday night for 5 years. The show, which is a slightly more twisted version of ‘To Catch a Predator’ features a Ms. Ding with:
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 inhumanity of this all is staggering:
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.
We are in elite company, with only 3 other countries separating us from China in number of executions (2010 data). And yet, somehow, I have this nagging feeling that there are some within our country who rejoice at executions the way the Chinese have been riveted to their TV screens; that the increasingly louder howls for blood perpetuated by the 24 hour news cycle and its Voldemort make ‘Interviews before Execution’ an idea that is very much alive here in the US, even if it isn’t on our TV screens.
The vengeance in Ms. Ding is something oft seen stateside:
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.’
And when we are face-to-face with the same sort of glee exhibited by a country that shares nary another value with us, it should give us pause. Is this who we really are:
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.
Three 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.’
Is this who want to be? Aren’t they doing what we already do, just more explicitly? A spokeswoman for the BBC, which is scheduled to air a documentary on this show, 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.
It’s also opening up an aspect of ourselves that we wish to hide. Are we strong enough to face it and reject it? Or do we succumb to the power of anger and turn up the volume?