By Richard Pascoe.

A macabre reality TV talk show series ‘Interviews Before Execution’, broadcast to 40 million viewers each week for four years by a state-owned channel in Henan province, has pushed the once taboo issue of the death penalty into the spotlight in China.

Started as an attempt to understand the criminal mind and to deter others from breaking the law, the series became a poignant must-watch programme on Saturday nights because of its voyeuristic depiction of the human tragedy on death row affecting victims, perpetrators and their families.

The subject of a BBC2  ‘This World’ documentary on British television this week, Interviews Before Execution became so popular in China that it sparked serious debate about capital punishment.  Henan Legal Channel, a state-owned provincial crime TV outlet, stopped producing the series on March 9th, according to the BBC, which did not give the reason.

The exact number of people executed in China is a closely-guarded secret. But human rights organisations estimate that between 1500 and 5000 people are put to death there each year.  Convicts on death row are either killed by lethal injection in China or shot — in the past by means of a single round fired into the back of the head.   The families of the condemned used to be made to pay for the bullet, while surgeons waited in ambulances at the execution grounds to harvest the organs for transplant surgery while they were still fresh.  It is not clear the extent to which such practices continue.

Executions were often held publicly during the Maoist years but have since been conducted in private.  In some regions condemned prisoners are still paraded through the streets to the execution ground standing on the back of a truck, with placards hung around their necks, as one episode showed. The number of crimes for which the death penalty may be imposed in China was recently reduced from 68 to 55.

Based on an idea by TV presenter Ding Yu, a stylish talk show host wearing silk scarves and designer clothes, the series showed her interviewing a different convicted murderer each week. Over 200 were interviewed in this way throughout the series. The convict would be shown shuffling in wearing handcuffs and a dayglow orange visibility vest, chain leg irons jangling.  He or she would sit on a wooden chair opposite Ding, flanked by two or more uniformed and often helmeted prison guards.

Each week she would ask the condemned prisoners about their past lives and who they murdered, why and how. She would ask them about their feelings and what they thought about their victims.   In the emotional high point of each programme, she would give the inmate an opportunity to say a few last words to the victim’s relatives and to their own families and children – and at this point the inmates often broke down.   Episodes were sometimes filmed moments before the convicts were led away to their deaths, according to the BBC.

In winning the agreement of the Henan judicial authorities to open their death row prisons to Ding, Henan Legal Channel achieved a major media breakthrough in a highly sensitive policy area for the Chinese party-state.  Ding would travel to prisons throughout Henan often at short notice, since by law in China condemned prisoners may be executed as early as seven days after sentences are passed.

As the programme developed, it included detailed investigations into complicated cases in which executions were either delayed or formally suspended for two years, pending a final judicial review.  

In one case, a condemned woman who had killed her husband had her sentence commuted for two years after the victim’s family agreed to accept a compensation payment from her family as a result of mediation by a judge.

The series, which began as little more than a gruesome reality-TV spotlight on criminal misfortune, evolved into a compelling emotional roller-coaster airing important issues of legal and judicial policy, as well-meaning judges were filmed implementing incremental humanitarian reforms in one of the world’s most draconian capital punishment regimes.

A senior Chinese judge who took part was shown by the BBC describing the death penalty as a cruel and violent act.  She said the death penalty was a way of punishing cruelty and violence by means of another act of cruelty and violence, a practice which she said was morally wrong and needed one day to be stopped. But she said China was not yet ready to abolish the death penalty.

Ding Yu was quoted as saying that when travelling on an overnight train she had once had a nightmare in which all of the executed prisoners she had interviewed stood in a line staring at her. She said a Supreme Court judge had once advised her not to go on with her work for too long because of the psychological impact it would have on her.   Interviewed by the BBC, Ding said she hoped that her work would one day lead to the abolition of the death penalty.

The EU, supported by the Great Britain China Centre (GBCC), has organised several projects that have engaged European lawyers and social scientists to work with Chinese counterparts on comparative studies on death penalty reform.   Some newer EU member states have relevant experience for China, having only recently abolished capital punishment themselves.   Such research reports are useful references for Chinese lawmakers grappling with the difficult issues of reform.

The Henan TV series, though now ended, is a grim and dramatic example of how the state-owned but commercialised media in China is becoming increasingly creative in finding ways around censorship to tackle issues previously regarded as off limits, leading to pressure for further change.

Richard Pascoe is a Consultant to the China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham

Opinions expressed in the CPI blog do not represent the views of the China Policy Institute or the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham. They are the personal views of the bloggers/authors.


  1. Fascinating stuff, Richard. This question of “when is China ready?” will become yet another bit of cliched rhetoric at some point. Surely the mindful amongst Chinese need to start asking, “If not now, when?” Or put more forcefully, when would NOW be a GOOD TIME to take the required action? With the judiciary increasingly realizing its power as it becomes more and more independent, a substantial portion of China’s future wrests in the hands in these lawmakers and the outcomes of these debates. ChinaSmack blog has an article complete with photos about one of these death row stories. It’s helpful to know that the judges you mentioned are so mindful of the issues. As said though, when would now be a good time…Thanks for raising awareness.

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