These myriad characters have one thing in common: they all have appeared on state-run China Central Television (CCTV) since President Xi Jinping took power three years ago, confessing their alleged crimes in front of a nationwide audience amid public outcries over trumped-up charges.
The latest additions to the growing list were two Swedish citizens: Gui Minhai,
a Hong Kong-based book publisher of juicy political gossip about China's Communist leaders including Xi, and Peter Dahlin
, who co-founded an organization that provides training and funding to Chinese human rights advocates.
Amid intense speculation of his kidnapping by Chinese government agents, a tearful Gui said on CCTV he had returned to China from Thailand voluntarily to clear his conscience over a fatal drunk-driving accident more than a decade earlier. On air he insisted the Swedish government should not intervene on his behalf.
Dahlin, who was expelled from China Monday
more than three weeks after police detained him at the Beijing airport, apologized for "hurting the feelings of the Chinese people" after admitting to breaking the law and causing harm to the government.
Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom told
the country's national news agency Friday that it was "completely unacceptable that they were made to parade themselves in this manner."
"These actions undermine China's claim to be a rule-of-law society, run contrary China's human rights commitments and hinder its attempts to build a more transparent and effective justice system," said Mark Toner, a U.S. State Department spokesman, last week. Secretary of State John Kerry visits Beijing Tuesday.
The spate of televised self-incriminations has reminded many of the forced public confessions by enemies of the state in the era of Chairman Mao Zedong, especially during the tumultuous 1966-76 Cultural Revolution.
"Unfairly receiving accusations with no chance of defending themselves -- this is not new, but it's an adaptation to new technology that now makes it possible for everybody to see this," said Jerome Cohen, a law professor at New York University and one of the foremost Western scholars on China's legal system.
Cohen and other experts explain that the self-contradictory nature of criminal law in China means suspects in custody have no right to silence despite their presumed innocence.
"It's a sad thing to see people put before the television and other media, before they have been even formally arrested," he said. "It's a pathetic thing and will defeat any chance the Chinese government has of trying to have a good reputation."
The Chinese government -- in which CCTV and state news agency Xinhua are ministry-level entities -- has always denied extracting confessions through coercion.
Trial by media?
In a country where the ruling Communist Party controls the entire judicial process and the conviction rate in criminal cases is nearly 100%, the TV confessions come at a time when the leadership under Xi is fighting to rein in public opinion in the Internet age and tightening its grip over political dissent.
Pointing to the Dahlin detention and "confession" as an example, observers say it sets the stage for China to pass a controversial law governing the fast-growing number of foreign non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in the country on grounds of national security.
Human rights activists have said a key element of the new law is cutting foreign funding to Chinese NGOs, at least those focusing on politically sensitive issues. Other proposals include transferring supervision authority of foreign NGOs from civil affairs officials to the police and placing much stricter requirements for such groups' registration.
"Not only is the government presiding over the most sustained crackdown on legal activists witnessed in two decades, it has also launched media propaganda campaigns against specific targets," said Nicholas Bequelin, the East Asia director for human rights group Amnesty International.
Chinese lawyers have also blamed CCTV for its role in televising what they call coerced confessions.
"CCTV's broadcasts are tantamount to trial by media and they convict people without the court," said Mo Shaoping, a prominent Beijing lawyer known for defending sensitive human rights cases. "They never air people's denial of their alleged crimes, or quote us lawyers. It's against basic journalistic principles."
Mo's clients have included Gao Yu, a journalist accused of leaking state secrets who was released in November
. Mo said Gao, who initially maintained her innocence, only confessed on camera after officials threatened the safety of her son.
Will Xi follow father's advice?
Already, Reporters Without Borders
, a Paris-based advocacy group for freedom of speech, has called for European Union sanctions against CCTV and Xinhua, which has also published such confessions.
"By knowingly peddling lies and statements that were presumably obtained under duress, CCTV and Xinhua become mass propaganda weapons and cease de facto to be news media," said Benjamin Ismail, head of the organization's Asia Pacific desk, in a statement.
"In view of their growing international role... these two organizations represent a threat to freely produced news in the public interest."
Cohen, the American law professor, recalled that Xi's father, a Communist revolutionary leader who was publicly abused and humiliated during the Cultural Revolution, advocated in 1983 the enactment of a law that would guarantee everyone in China the right to express differing opinion.
"I hope Xi follows his father's advice rather than continuing along this path," he said. "But I don't have my hopes too high."