Coerced Confessions and the War of the Ideologies

The rivalry between the United States and China is not just a competition for economic or military supremacy, much more importantly it is a battle over ideas. The most significant of these ideas involves the question of how society ought to be fundamentally structured and to what extent the state can constrict a citizen’s liberty. It is a contest between two diametrically opposed ways of living.

On June 16th, a Hong Kong bookseller appeared in front of journalists by Chinese security forces and tossed into a solitary jail cell while he was on a trip to the mainland to visit his girlfriend. The man, Lam Wing-kee, was accused of selling printed material considered damaging to the communist party. He and four others who were kidnapped by Chinese authorities ran a bookshop which sold salacious rumor-filled novels portraying the sex lives and political power games of top government officials. These types of books – indeed anything that depicts party members in a negative light – are banned in China.

Mr. Lam disclosed that interrogators repeatedly questioned him about his role in the Hong Kong book-publishing industry and kept asking for the list of customers whom he sold books to. Mr. Cam was then forced to sign a confession implicating himself and a colleague in the selling of illicit material that harmed Chinese Society. Referring to his confession he said, “It was a show, and I accepted it. I had to follow the script. If I did not follow it strictly, they would ask for a retake.”

Unsurprisingly, the Chinese government pointed to the “confessions” by Mr. Lam and his colleagues as evidence that they had arrived voluntarily to the mainland to assist authorities. Broadcasting coerced confession is the way that authorities sway public opinion and justify the detentions of prisoners and political dissidents. Obviously, no citizen in his right mind would want to be treated this way.

The most troubling aspect of Mr. Lam’s and his colleague’s situation is that false confessions are not isolated to authoritarian regimes like China’s. False confessions are routinely coerced from suspects by American law enforcement in eerily similar ways. Suspects are thrown into dingy cells, denied food, water, or contact with family members. Additionally, current U.S. case law has seriously eroded the indispensible Miranda rights so much so that sometimes the right to counsel must be invoked multiple times in multiple settings before the invocation is valid.

Unfortunately, the stress of being interrogated in such an inhospitable environment coupled with the interrogators’ refusal to accept a truthful denial of culpability and a possible refusal of Miranda invocation can cause anyone to confess to a crime they did not commit. Combine all this with sleep deprivation, hunger, and dehydration and it may seem at the time that submitting to authority is the only way to end the torture. And the worst part is that prosecutors can lawfully use these false confessions against a defendant no matter how much contradictory evidence exists to show that the defendant’s statements could not possibly be true. It is both surprising and unsettling that such flimsy legal protections against questionable confessions exist in what is supposed to be the world’s most developed legal system. The undue weight given to confessions in American courtrooms harkens back to a time when confessions were all that mattered to those who could not comprehend the significance of physical evidence –or even basis logic such as during the Salem witch trials.

The point in all this is that a fair criminal-justice system – indeed any fair treatment by the State – has the gravitational pull to attract the hearts and minds of those who have no such experience in the homelands. This is a powerful weapon for nations who wish to spread Western liberal democratic values all over the world and is crucial in the battle of ideas between free societies and authoritarian regimes. If the U.S. possessed a truly just court system, people like Mr. Cam, his colleagues, and the thousands of supporters who took to the streets of Hong Kong to demand the release of the booksellers would be naturally drawn to the American way of life. If the U.S. as well as democratic European nations worked to reform their justice systems and advertised the equitableness of those systems abroad, the scores of citizens who have been abused by their governments would give democracy serious considerations. They would see that other options exist – options that preserve and celebrate human rights instead of trampling over them, and foreign sentiment toward the west would shift.

The war for global influence goes far beyond per capita GDP or the number of gunships in the South China Sea. It is about whether the denizens of the world feel that they can live an enlightened existence within a certain societal framework. If we win this fight, it won’t matter how imposing or belligerent China becomes. Its citizens will carry Chinese passports but their hearts and minds will belong to the west.