One episode features a handcuffed man in khaki pants and an orange vest, flanked by two guards. The prisoner is condemned to die for murdering his ex-wife; he stabbed her then lit the house on fire. Seated in front of the prisoner is a well-dressed TV news reporter.
“When you found out she was living with Ding Aiguo, how did you feel?” the reporter asks the prisoner.
“I was a little furious at the time,” says the prisoner. “I said that if she left me I couldn’t go on.”
“Why did you say that?” asks the reporter.
“Because she was part of my life,” replies the prisoner. “She was everything to me.”
And then the prisoner explains how he stabbed his ex-wife to death. Apparently, the deed was traumatic for him.
“When I killed her,” he says. “I held her body and cried.”
The reporter has gotten quite a lot, but now she digs even further. “Do you think it is love,” she asks the prisoner.
“I don’t know,” he mumbles.
And another real-life, life and death drama unfolds on camera for the popular and controversial Chinese television program, Interviews Before Execution. The show, which ran from 2006 to 2012, was hosted by Ding Yu. She became a household name in China. The show was aired on the Henan Legal Channel, in China’s Henan Province. The show, which like all Chinese TV shows had been sanctioned by authorities, gave prisoners a rare chance to explain themselves to the nation before being executed.
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“Some viewers may consider it cruel to ask a criminal to do an interview when they’re about to be executed,” explained Yu, in a one-hour long documentary the BBC created about the show. “On the contrary,” Yu Continued. “They want to be heard. When I talk with the interviewee I am more concerned with his character, upbringing, environment, social background, and the link between him and the victim. That is what we want to dig out.”
China does not release figures on how many people they execute annually, but according to Amnesty International, China executes more people than any other country on earth, and the figure is more than an order of magnitude higher than the #2 country when it comes to executions, Pakistan—the United States is ranked sixth. At the time the show was being aired there were 55 offenses punishable by death in China, including crimes like endangering public security and embezzlement. But the show chose to focus only on brutal murder cases.
Yu interviewed some 226 inmates. There was a young man and his girlfriend who killed the girl’s grandparents for financial gain, a woman convicted of murdering her husband, and an 18-year-old murderer, one of the youngest people to be sentenced to death. There was also the case of Bao Rongting, a homosexual man convicted of murdering his mother. That series of episodes drew some of the program’s highest ratings.
“I thought [the show] was a great idea right away, not because I thought of it as being commercially successful, but because of our responsibility to society,” explained the head of the Henan Legal Channel. Ding Yu came up with the idea.
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But the show did become popular, and its popularity became its downfall. In 2012, the BBC broadcast a documentary about the show entitled: “Interviews Before Execution: A Chinese Talk Show”. Shortly afterward British newspapers reported that Chinese authorities were unhappy with the documentary and had banned Ding Yu and her colleagues from giving further interviews. Apparently, they feared the show was damaging China’s international standing. In March of 2012 the program was reportedly canceled.
It’s a shame. Not only did the show shine a spotlight on a part of China few people ever get to see, but it shined a spotlight on a part of humanity few people ever get to see.
As Yu continues her interview with the handcuffed prisoner she points out to the man that by killing his ex-wife he hurt the one person he most wanted to protect, his daughter.
You can give her a message if you want, says Yu. “Tell her and we’ll relay it, you can speak to the camera, she will see you.”
After hanging his head the prisoner perks up and looks into the camera. “Daughter, your daddy is sorry,” he says. “Because of me, you lost both your mother and father in just one day.”
Later, Yu and her film crew tracked down the daughter, who was living with foster parents. Yu asked if the girl would like to watch her father’s filmed apology. She said yes.
“When I’m face to face with them I feel sorry and regretful for them,” said Ding, about her show’s doomed subjects. “But I don’t sympathize with them, because they should pay a heavy price for their wrongdoing. They deserve it.”