Interviews Before Execution: Chinese reality talk show with death row inmates

The BBC airs an hour-long documentary tonight about "Interviews Before Execution," a hit talk show in China in which host Ding Yu interviews prisoners on death row. Some 40 million viewers in China tune in to the show each week.

Days, hours, or minutes before they are killed, the host talks inside prison to those who have been condemned to die. The BBC doc combines clips from the show with "never-before-seen footage of China's death row," and includes an interview with a local judge who questions the future of the death penalty in China.

More about the documentary, from the BBC website:

To Western eyes the show's format may seem exploitative, but Ding 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," she 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 interviewed a prisoner every week until the programme was taken off air.

Exactly how many prisoners are executed each year in China? No one seems to know, but the number is estimated to be in the thousands. According to a 2011 Amnesty International report, China is number one in kill count among nations that use capital punishment. The USA is also in the top five, but with a 2010 count of 46 executions—a long way off from the top contender. Regarding China's use of the death penalty, Amnesty reports that "Thousands are believed to be executed every year," but "Authorities remain highly secretive about its use."

Related reading: ABC News, Daily Mail, NY Post, NYT/IHT.

PBS International has rights on a related documentary. No air date planned inside the US just yet, from what I understand.

It's very Idiocracy, or Network, no?

(thanks, Antinous)


  1. Serious response: There is no place in modern society for the death penalty. It is an ineffective deterrent to violent crime, it cheapens life by sanctioning unnecessary violence, and it dehumanizes all who take part in it. Even more importantly, governments have demonstrated time and time again that they are far too fallible to be entrusted with the Ultimate punishment.

    Flippant response: The original working title for this show was “Just Shoot Me.”

  2. In most suicides off the Golden Gate Bridge, people jump facing the populated city instead of away from it for perhaps the same reason some inmates would want a chance for the public to hear their valediction.

    1. And it’s the side open to pedestrians. The ocean side is bikes only. Not that someone about to jump cares about breaking the rules, but it’s more likely to get a lot of attention if you try and walk out on the bicycle side.

    2. Like anyone whose mind isn’t tainted with authoritarian poison, I revile the concept of capital punishment.

      Consequently I find the whole concept of this talk show (given its obvious angle shown by the subs in the screencap above) absolutely sickening. It’s the brainchild of despicable scum. I have nothing but incandescent hatred for that whole headspace.

      I’m pretty sure any possible worthwhile aspect of this show’s premise is precluded from existence in much the same way there’s nothing intentionally elucidating to be had from drivel like Big Brother.

      1. Like anyone who deals with reality, I wondered why someone facing the death penalty would agree to be interviewed on television. Perhaps a need to be noticed, or a chance to find peace by leaving this world as an individual rather than a statistic.

        1. Or possibly the TV people and the government are in collusion and threaten your family if you don’t cooperate.

        2. The intro to my comment wasn’t directed at you, Teller.

          My feeling is that even if Antinous’ suspicion is unfounded, there’s a whole lot of room for these people to be manipulated into thinking they won’t be completely fucked over in the editing room ala the aforementioned ‘reality show’ filth.

          And bizarrely enough, as history has shown, amongst the folks who consider agreeing to such a potentially good idea, having actually seen the show before doesn’t seem to mean much. Possibly a variation on, ‘It can’t happen to me, I’m somehow special’… a cognitive bias perhaps exacerbated in these victims, particularly if innocent.

          1. Noted on intro.

            I think we can agree that “completely fucked over in the editing room” is seemingly worth the risk to some who are about to die. I believe it’s because even in despair there are those who want to declare a value on their life when others don’t. The show, as reprehensible as it is for exploiting the condemned, offers that opportunity.

            The innocent are a different issue altogether.

  3. Even this is highly sanitized.  Screw hearing about real criminals on death row, let’s hear from Chinese people whose only “crime” was having an opinion about something.

    1. If you’re willing to split states up like that, it’s probably not even in the top 20.

      1. Jonathan, you are incorrect.  Although differences in records make it difficult to say, per capita, texas was likely the top executioner in *the world* for 2007.
        From the Houston Chronicle: “If Texas were a nation, it would have been among the top state executioners in the world in past decades, in the company of judicial pariahs like China and Iran.”

  4. I find it very disturbing that a country would have enough people on death row to make a TV series about them.

    1. It is not a nationwide show, but only in the province of Henan,  which has just under 100 million people – so I guess the country as a whole has about 13x as many people on death row. Of course, that is not less disturbing.

      1.  Well yeah, but I phrased it that broadly because this got me thinking about my country.  Thanks to high incarceration rates and as much as 90% of criminal cases never having a trial by jury, might the United States have more than enough material to create something like this too?  Not just a movie, documentary, or TV special, but a TV series that airs once a week, or maybe even every weekday?

        1. Not as much as you’d think, but it would be possible.  The show couldn’t run every week, however, as there aren’t that many executions in the country to meet that requirement.

          In 2011, the United States executed 43 people.  13 of them were in Texas.  Only 11 states executed prisoners in 2011 and only 8 of those executed more than one.

  5. The problem isn’t that the people about to be murdered by the judiciary are visible, the problem is that they’re being murdered in the first place. Fortunately I live in a country too civilized for the death penalty – but if I did not have that privilege I’d much rather have every single person my country put to death visible in the media than having them all passed on in relative obscurity.

  6. I just saw the docco, being in BBC land, and it was interesting. Ding Yu – whose idea the TV show was in the first place – apparently broadcast once a week for four years, though according to info at the end of the documentary the TV series went off air permanently just last week, on 9th March.

    Although apparently people can be executed a week after sentencing, from the documentary it sounded as though things were changing. Nowadays every death sentence has to be approved by some supreme court, and in some cases are sent back for review, so the TV show can be following up months or even years later. One woman who had killed her husband was still alive several years after first being sentenced; there was talk of domestic abuse, and the court had got her family and her victim’s family to meet and though most of the victim’s extended family wanted the woman executed, the victim’s parents and sister agreed to let her live – with payment of £10,000 blood money – and she may even get out of jail in time. Another man interviewed as an executee also seemed to have had his sentence commuted.

    On the other hand, several of the people we saw interviewed were indeed later reported to have been executed; one was only a few minutes after we last saw him as he was shown being taken away in an open truck for his last parade in the streets.

    Although there are 55 capital crimes (down from 68), according to the documentary, the TV show interviewees were, I gather, exclusively clear cut killers: a man who had raped and killed a poor child who had mistakenly been kidnapped instead of a rich one; a man who had killed his girlfriend’s grandparents when they woke up while he was burgling their house; a man who had killed his mother. So no cases of political crimes, or corruption, or suchlike, or indeed cases of wrongful conviction.

    At the end a senior judge with 20+ years of experience of death cases did think – and hoped – that in time China would abolish the death penalty, but it is not ready for it just yet.

    1. Thank you for all of this information. I’m still on the fence concerning “crimes against humanity”, so I find some comfort that none of the people shown were not on death row due to their own beliefs. 

      It’s also important to note the location, it’s strategic for some reason, I can’t figure it out though. Maybe the dam? It’s about 100 miles away. This court system would be far enough away from the Hubei province to create a wall of distance between the accused’s  and his community, about a 6 hour drive. 

    2.  I found it interesting that Ding Yu was told when the show first aired that she was “just a girl” and should not be involving herself with these type of people, which she dismissed at the time as condescension.
      Cut to four years later and she admitted that doing the show had resulted in a negative impact on her personal life. After hearing about so much destruction and heartbreak, she regularly feared for life and could not “switch off” except when with her family.

  7. I don’t know enough about Chinese culture to say if this is exploitative to them. As for myself, I couldn’t watch a program like that. There’s enough suffering and grief in the world without seeking out more of it.

    1.  Exactly what I was thinking. 

      Q.  “So are you excited that your body fat might be made into a skin firming cream?”
      A.  dubbed over what the prisoner is saying “Yes, I am honored!”

  8. “You’re dangerous to society, you’re shit”.

    Well, someone in this picture is, that’s for sure.

    1. No kidding.  It’s like Americans took a look around and said, yes, we need to be more like China, Iran, North Korea….

  9. The “you’re shit” comment by the interviewer didn’t characterise what her interviews were like most of the time, at least as presented in the documentary. It wasn’t her haranguing the interviewees so much as wanting to find out what was in people’s heads, why they did what they did (as a warning to others not to lose control, apparently), and kicked off sometimes by asking what films the  interviewee liked (one wife-killer said “science fiction and fantasy”; his death sentence was later set aside, we learned at the end).

    Most of the interviewees appeared willing to speak; apparently only five people approached have refused, including one who refused after the TV camera crew, followed by the docco crew,  had travelled to meet him.

    The creepiest bits of the documentary were not so much the interviews themselves, which seemed to have been conducted calmly enough in comfortable environments, but other filmed bits of the justice system. For instance, a victim’s father on his knees in front of the judge in court, begging and crying for the swift execution of his son’s wife and killer, or the sad little school for the young orphans created when one parent kills another and is then arrested and executed in turn.

    Much more intrusive than the interviews was watching the condemned, trussed up with their arms tied up behind their backs, brought out for a last meeting with family in a sort of public melee on the day of the execution. Some family members were very distressed while others stoically promised to look after a child or a mother; in another case, a father matter-of-factly asked his condemned son where his belongings were.

    The most exploitative bit seemed to be when Ding Yu brought a prisoner face to face with her daughter, who she hadn’t seen in five years since the kid was 14 months old. The kid had forgotten the mother, and thought the prisoner’s sister-in-law, sister of the murder victim, was her mother – they were going to tell her one day, but hadn’t yet. Must have been confusing as hell, being brought into a prison at seven in front of TV cameras to meet a mysterious and distressed prisoner. The prisoner in turn had only just been told, on camera, she was going to see her daughter, a grim version of Surprise, Surprise. At least they pixellated the kid’s face.

    The TV personnel seemed thoroughly from the 21stC with their  casual clothes, shiny offices, digital editing suites and cellphones, the court environment seemed more from the buttoned up and military-smart 1980s, and the final bits of pre-execution procedures and paperwork seemed like something from the 1920s, with trussed-up prisoners brought out of small brick buildings and paraded in public with hand-written placards detailing their crimes hanging round their necks. I suppose Chinese viewers would think much the same of the televising of UK justice – modern TV studios, crowded Victorian prisons from the 19thC and bewigged judges (if court proceedings could be shown on TV, which they can’t) from the 18thC.

    The docco is here on the BBC iPlayer for those who can see such things.

  10. I watched this last night. The format and stance of the show “Interviews Before Execution” pretty much followed the government line about execution being a just punishment, so I was prepared to pan it out of hand. By the end I was intrigued, especially with the emphasis on change in the law and the official attitude toward capital punishment (as stated in the doco).

    It would be a fine thing indeed if China were to abolish the death penalty in law and in fact before the US did. Unlikely, given changing attitudes in the US as well, but history can be like that sometimes.

  11. I saw this in January, and thought it was very insightful. Whatever you think of the Chinese justice system, it is a rare look into a system we know very little about. Of course, it is true that there is most likely some censorship going on, and a strict selection of cases/prisoners that are allowed to be shown on television by the authorities. It is indeed remarkable that all cases that are show concern murder, crime passionels, theft, robbery and other violent crime. No political prisoners are shown, of course. In that sense it is a propaganda piece to justify the existence of the death penalty, and the remarks made by the judge and interviewer expressing their doubts about the system and their hope for a possible future where there’s no death penalty should perhaps be taken with a grain of salt.
    In the case where the interviewer called the prisoner a piece of shit she herself later admitted that she was too emotionally affected by the details of the case, and as a journalist she regretted her outburst.
    All in all, a very interesting program, to be seen with a critical mind.

  12. Oh well, if USA is “far from being among the top contenders” it’s all right then!

    And to think that I was about to get a tiny bit worried…

  13. Having read the responses of folks who didn’t immediately run the other way in revulsion, I’ve gotta say it appears some of my concerns were unfounded.

    However, given the selectiveness of the cases, this is indeed propaganda for the death penalty, and as such can never be more than vile filth in my eyes.

  14. Ya I like the last part 
    but “Authorities remain highly secretive about its use.” Doesn’t it seem more like population control? I bet you most of those people are innocent, and a few handful are guilty. 

  15. I was intrigued enough by this documentary to sign up for a UK VPN account (I’m in Canada) that let me watch it online.  Well worth it.  Just too bad my money went to the VPN host and not the Beeb itself. 

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