One of China’s most venerable dissident journalists was paraded on state television Thursday morning, apologizing for spilling state secrets that embarrassed the Chinese Communist Party.
The public shaming of Gao Yu, a 70-year-old grandmother who had written widely about the pro-democracy protests at Tiananmen Square, was perhaps the most shocking in a recent series of on-air confessions.
“I believe that what I did broke the law and harmed the interests of the country. This was extremely wrong,” Gao, wearing an orange prison vest, said in the televised broadcast. “I sincerely and earnestly accept this lesson and I want to confess.”
Chinese state media described Gao as leaking state secrets, leading some commentators to call her China’s Edward Snowden. But the leaked document in question appears to have been ideological guidelines distributed to cadres last year by the Communist Party’s Central Committee. The so-called Document No. 9 railed against seven subversive elements -- Western democracy, human rights, civic participation, neo-liberalism, independent media, questioning the history of the Chinese Communist Party and questioning China’s economic policy.
The ideas were widely reported in the foreign media, as well as in Communist Party journals, but Gao is accused of having obtained the full text of the document in June and of giving it to the Chinese-language website of Deutsche Welle, the German broadcaster.
Gao’s arrest, coming almost a year after the alleged crime, appears timed to the upcoming 25th anniversary of the June 4, 1989, military crackdown at Tiananmen Square, one of the most sensitive dates on the Chinese calendar.
“The government is trying to intimidate anybody who might discuss June 4 -- that this is a taboo topic and that this is what will happen to you if you discuss it,’’ said Zhang Lifan, a Communist Party historian based in Beijing.
It is customary before the June 4 anniversary for the Chinese government to keep activists under house arrest as a precaution, but this year it has happened sooner and with more vigor than in the past.
Pu Zhiqiang, a prominent lawyer, was arrested early Monday morning after hosting a seminar for writers and academics on the Tiananmen Square crackdown at this home over the weekend. He was charged with “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,’’ a catchall charge often leveled against activists. At least four others who attended the session have also been detained.
Ironically, Gao was supposed to attend the same event at Pu’s home, but didn’t show up because she was already in detention. She had disappeared mysteriously from her home a week before, her whereabouts unknown until her appearance on television Thursday morning.
The broadcast on Gao was aired at 6.30 a.m., when viewership is low, and her face was blurred during the broadcast -- courtesies that suggest she will be treated leniently in return for the confession.
Televised confessions -- a legacy of the Communist custom of self-criticism -- have become common fixtures on Chinese television the last few years. Among those trotted out for the cameras of late have been Charles Xue, a Chinese American blogger, a GlaxoSmithKline executive and a journalist.
Still, the roundup of activists is a disappointment for Chinese liberals, many of whom had enthusiastically predicted that Xi Jinping, who took over as president last year, would allow more candid discussion of the Tiananmen Square crackdown.
“Twenty-five years of official impunity is enough -- it is high time for the Chinese authorities themselves to face the truth, assume responsibility for their actions, and begin the healing process for the nation,’’ Sharon Hom, director of the New York-based organization Human Rights in China, said in a statement released Thursday.
According to the organization, Chinese authorities also have banned Ding Zilin, a prominent activist, from Beijing until after the June 4 anniversary. Ding, whose 17-year-old son was shot to death in 1989, is the best-known member of Tiananmen Mothers, a support group for families of victims. Anywhere from several hundreds to thousands of people were killed during the crackdown again demonstrators in 1989.