Millions of Chinese people in Henan Province have been tuning in every Saturday night to watch an extraordinary talk show called “Interviews Before Execution”, in which a reporter interviews murderers condemned to death.
The show ran for just over five years, until it was taken off air on Friday.
Every Monday morning, reporter Ding Yu and her team scoured court reports to find cases to cover on their programme. They had to move quickly, as prisoners in China can be executed seven days after they are sentenced.
To Western eyes the show’s format may seem exploitative, but reporter Ding Yu disagrees.
“Some viewers may 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,” Ding Yu says.
“Some criminals I interviewed told me: <<I’m really very glad. I said so many things in my heart to you at this time. In prison, there was never a person I was willing to talk to about past events>>.”
“Interviews Before Execution” was first broadcast on 18 November 2006 on Henan Legal Channel, one of 3,000 state-owned TV stations in China. Ding Yu interviewed a prisoner every week until the programme was taken off air.
The move follows a handful of reports about the show in foreign media, which were triggered by a documentary to be screened on the BBC tonight and on PBS International in the near future.
The aim of “Interviews Before Execution”, the programme-makers say, was to find cases that would serve as a warning to others. The slogan at the top of every programme called for human nature to awaken and “perceive the value of life”.
In China, 55 crimes carry the death penalty, from murder, treason and armed rebellion to bribery and smuggling. Thirteen other crimes, including VAT fraud, smuggling relics and credit fraud, were only recently removed from the list of capital offences.
“Interviews Before Execution”, however, focused exclusively on cases of violent murder.
The reporter never interviewed political prisoners or cases where the crime was in question, and the team received the Henan high court’s consent in every case.
“Without their consent, our programme would end immediately,” said Ding Yu.
Broadcast every Saturday night, the programme was frequently rated one of Henan’s top 10 shows, with nearly 40 million viewers out of the 100 million who live in the province.
The programme made Ding Yu a star, known to many as “Beauty with the Beasts”.
If people failed to heed the warnings the programme offered, Ding Yu says, then it was right that they should face the consequences.
“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.”
Many of the cases featured in the programme were motivated by money and one case in particular stands out for Ding Yu.
The perpetrators were boyfriend and girlfriend – young, educated college graduates.
The couple planned to rob her grandparents but it went wrong and the young man, 27-year-old Zhang Peng, ended up killing them both.
“They are so young. They never had the chance to see this world, or to enjoy life, a career, work, and the love of family.
“They’ve made the wrong choice, and the price is their lives,” said Ding Yu.
But after more than 200 interviews, little surprises her.
“I’ve interviewed criminals even younger than that young student, some just 18 years old. That is the minimum age you can be sentenced to death.”
Homosexuality is still a huge taboo in China, and when in 2008 the show covered the case of Bao Ronting, a gay man who murdered his mother, ratings soared.
It was the first time Ding Yu had ever met an openly gay man.
“I had never come close to a gay man, so I really couldn’t accept some of his practices, words and deeds.
“Though he was a man, he asked me in a very feminine tone, ‘Do you feel awkward speaking to me?’ Actually I felt very awkward,” Ding Yu recalls.
Ding Yu and her team made a further three episodes on the case of Bao Ronting and followed him until the day he was executed in November 2008.
During one of these meetings, Bao Ronting asked Ding Yu: “Will I go to heaven?”
Remembering these words, Ding Yu reflects: “I witness the transition from life to death.”
Bao Ronting was paraded in an open top truck on the way to his execution with a placard around his neck, detailing his crime. The practice is illegal in modern China – but the law is not always observed.
Judge Lui Wenling, who worked closely with the programme-makers, says things are changing in the Chinese legal system.
“The present criminal policies in China are <<To kill less and cautiously>> and <<Combining lenience and strictness>>.
“It means, <<If the case is fit for lenient treatment, give it lenience>>, and, <<If the case should be strictly treated, give it a strict punishment>>,” he says.
Ding Yu recently covered the case of Wu Yanyan, a young mother who murdered her husband after allegedly suffering years of abuse.
She was initially sentenced to death for the murder. But since 2007, every execution verdict in China has to be approved by the Supreme Court, and in this case it took the view that the abuse provided mitigating circumstances.
The higher court kept returning the case to the local court until the death sentence was suspended.
Ding Yu visited the prison with Wu Yanyan’s daughter for an emotional reunion. If the young mother continues to behave well in prison, after two years she could ultimately be released – a small sign of changing attitudes in China.
One of China’s more liberal judges, Judge Pan, along with some other senior figures in the justice system, foresees more far-reaching reforms in future.
“A life could end in the twinkling of an eye after a trial. I’d say this is also very cruel,” he says.
“It’s also a means of getting rid of evil deeds through an evil deed.
“Should we abolish the death penalty? Since the death sentence for criminals is itself a violent act, then we should abolish it. However, I don’t think our country is ready yet.
“But in the future, it would be good to abolish it.”