Orphans, Strawberries, and the Death Penalty in Beijing
Not long ago, I set out to spend the day at an orphanage outside Beijing. Instead, I wound up picking strawberries with a former prison warden. The two are directly connected, which is something I never would have guessed. When the day was over, I had learned a lesson I expect I will encounter many times: just about everything in China today, in one way or another, comes down to business.
I discovered the Sun Village orphanage while researching reality television in China. The subject intrigued me for the simple reason that the government controls the airwaves; the concept of reality television alone seems to me an inherent liability the government would not likely risk. However in early March, news of a popular reality program made international headlines. Interviews Before Execution profiled men and women facing death in the months, weeks, days, even the hours and minutes before they died. For five years it was broadcast on the Legal TV Channel in central China’s Henan Province to huge ratings. An estimated 40 million people tuned in every Saturday to watch the program’s popular host, Ding Yu, interview inmates and their families.
According to reports, the Chinese government approved the show on the belief it would act as a deterrent to would-be criminals. In clips of a documentary made by the Beijing-based production house LIC, Ding interviewed, among others, a child-killer and a man who killed a mother and a child with an ax. As warned, I found the program difficult to watch. But it was fascinating to me for two reasons. First, that the government was willing to green-light a show that so directly addressed an issue it takes great pain to conceal: the death penalty. Second, that it allowed the condemned to speak freely. Ding played the role of critic, often harshly admonishing her subjects herself. Still, I wondered, in an audience of 40 million, wouldn’t watching the show at least raise the debate over the death penalty in more than one household?
In China, 55 crimes are punishable by death. The exact number of executions that takes place is a closely guarded state secret. Amnesty International publishes precise country-by-country figures on executions each year. It stopped including China in 2009 as a challenge to the government’s lack of transparency. The best estimate is in the thousands; I came across figures ranging from 1,000 to 5,000 per year. The government has said in the past that the real figure is far lower. Amnesty International questions why, if that is true, won’t it simply release the real figure?