Every TV producer has pondered the idea of airing “live” executions as a reality series. While a few films have explored the possibilities – from Witness to the Execution to The Hunger Games, no one really expects executions to someday be televised. But in China, they’ve been doing the next best thing for years… they’ve been airing a weekly “talk” show called Interviews Before Execution. It’s a long-time hit, with TV host Ding Yu interviewing the condemned, often just moments before they are put to death. China puts more of its citizens to death in one year than every other country combined – about 10,000 – women, men, anyone 18 or older. There are nearly 60 offenses in China that result in the death penalty. The culture also requires the family of the accused to pay the family of the victim exorbitant amounts of cash to “be forgiven” by victim’s family. Only when a victim’s family has forgiven the accused can there be a possibility, a small one, but a possibility that the death sentence will be commuted.
Interviews Before Execution does not show the actual execution, which is usually firing squad. But it does show the accused being confronted by both his family and his victim’s family as he is being led away to his death, heightening the drama of the series. Many condemned never make it on the show as they are killed in Execution Buses. These conveniences are buses located around the country where criminals are “put down” instantly like dogs using lethal injection.
Morbid curiosity is what draws viewers to watch such a show. It’s certainly not its host, Ding Yu. I must confess, I find it bizarre that I am critiquing the work of a female host who interviews criminals moments before their deaths. But I suppose as the show is highly rated throughout China, Ding is fair game. Ding is cold and unaffected. Her questions are trite and unoriginal, “How do you feel knowing you’re going to die in a few moments?”. Granted, most of the condemned she interviews are true killers (if, of course, you trust the Chinese justice system – and there are plenty of reasons why you shouldn’t). Ding rarely allows a condemned person to touch her or shake her hand. In one episode, a condemned gay man who murdered his mother asks if he can touch her. She allows his hand to graze her middle finger ever so slightly, as if she’s some “goddess of life” touching the lowest form of life, and she tells that man she’s very comfortable allowing him to touch her finger. But she later tells the audience she was repulsed by having to touch him, but told him she was comfortable because otherwise he would not have given her an interview. So she’s open to tell her audience that she lies to her interviewees, in essence, to get the interview. Can you imagine Barbara Walters admitting that? Would she be as beloved as she is if she admitted to lying to, say Tom Cruise, to get him to open up? Most who appear on the show have been convicted of killing more than one person, or they’ve killed a child, or some other dastardly crime. They certainly don’t deserve sympathy for what they’ve done. But it seems to me that as host of an interview show, you must find some middle ground with someone who is just moments away from dying. But then this is China. So I suppose showing any kind of mercy to a condemned soul would only have Ding facing a firing squad. Ding says proudly that she’s only teared up twice – and each time was, of course, in memory of the victim.
The BBC has put together a fascinating documentary about the show, which has been cancelled. It seems China is (supposedly) moving away from capital punishment and cancelling this show was, apparently, a sign of progress on the issue. They’ve even downed the number of crimes eligible for the death penalty to fifty-something. So I suppose with fewer dead men walking there are fewer killers to interview which means fewer stories to tell on a TV talk show, which necessitates the death of the show. The good news is that these fresh cadavers help supply China’s growing organ donation industry. And I can only hope there will continue to be an ample number of Chinese death row bodies available to dip into plastic to supply the horrifically morbid – yet hugely popular “Bodies: The Exhibition” tour that draws millions to American museums.