‘Interviews before Execution’: Death as a cultural product, from China to BBC

Some 60% of the total executions in the world take place in China, where some 2,000 to 4,000 people are executed annually. Can you make a ‘cultural product’ out of that? Yes, they did in China, and now this ‘product’ is really big…a hit. Moreover, and like everything Chinese, it transcended the Chinese frontiers, reaching as far as…the UK?

‘Interviews Before Execution’
is a reality show on Chinese TV with some 40 million viewers following it second by second every Saturday night. As the name entails, it features interviews with prisoners condemned to death, sometimes, only minutes before they are led away to be killed. Throughout the interview, these ephemeral protagonists talk about their lives, the crimes they committed, and many collapse and break into tears as they beg for forgiveness or express their regret, sending messages to their families and their victims for the last time.

Originally intended to dissuade people from following the example of these ‘criminals’ and suffering the same fate, the program eventually turned into a hit, and the presenter (an elegant and presentable young lady called Ding Yu, now a celebrity) is now an idol. She embodies the ideals of the state-sponsored propaganda that the show is cultivating: condemned criminals deserve to die, execution is fair, no sympathy should be shown to them, the government is right, etc. She once expressed her disgust after having touched the hand of a condemned homosexual who had asked her to shake hands with him during the show.

Today, the BBC 2 will broadcast a documentary about that Chinese show (23:20 GMT). Why would they? They deem the show ‘extraordinary’, ‘popular’ and hold that the show ‘reveals a part of China that is generally hidden from view’. They chose not to mention the main reason: they know the documentary will be a winner given the ‘shock factor’*, capitalizing on the already fucked-up image of China; its dark human rights record; and people’s tried-and-trusted obsession with reality shows (everyone is tired of Paris Hilton and Lady Gaga). The BBC will ‘re-package’ a morbid Chinese cultural product from, and will present it to its viewers ‘with love’. A televised ‘cabinet of curiosities’. Shame!

* It was exactly this shock factor that had prompted Channel 4 to show the Chinese artist Zhu Yu eating a dead human fetus. Horrible? Indeed, but Channel 4 thought is was enough to claim that: “The programme will be controversial and will shock some viewers but a warning will be given before it goes out on air.” Thank you for the warning!

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