Ding Yu, the host of China's "Interviews Before Execution" TV show is seen conducting an interview with a convict on death row in a new BBC documentary.
BEIJING – "I went to see your brother and sisters. They all know that you are leaving this world. But, sorry, they didn’t want to see you."
"I don’t want to see them either. Let me die," the man said, wiping his teary eyes. Two policemen stood behind him while a microphone was pointed at him.
"Is there anything you want me to tell your brother and sisters?"
"No. I did something wrong. I killed my mother. "
This exchange was a conversation between TV hostess Ding Yu and Bao Rongting, a convicted murderer, just a few hours before he was executed on Nov. 20, 2008. It was broadcast on "Interviews Before Execution," a weekly TV program, that aired on the Legal Channel in China’s central-eastern Henan Province for over five years.
Starting in late 2006, the hour-long show attracted millions of viewers and ranked among the top-ten TV programs in the province. Every Saturday night, almost half of Henan’s 94 million residents tuned in to watch the show, which was not available to viewers outside the province.
The show has now gained international attention since the BBC aired a documentary, "The Execution Factor," on Monday. A Chinese production company, LIC, worked with the BBC and PBS International, which will soon launch its own documentary on the show and its host, Ding.
Ding interviewed 226 prisoners on death row. Most of the prisoners were executed afterwards, but some received a death penalty "pardon" with a few years of reprieve, which usually means a life sentence in China.
A former law student, Ding’s journalistic style is similar to many female Chinese primetime news anchors: She has short hair, a patient-tone with her interviewees, is well-dressed – but not ostentatious – and her questioning style is straightforward, not dramatic
She interviewed a husband who killed his ex-wife because he "was still in love with her," a teenage girl who ruthlessly strangled her best friend over a trivial quarrel, and a wife who burned her husband to death after suffering years of domestic abuse.
Ding was particularly blunt with one unrepentant interviewee, saying: "I’m glad you got caught. You are a scumbag." One episode featured a man yelping, "I’m sorry," and kneeling down on the ground hours before his execution. In another, right before his execution a convict asked her: "Can I shake hands with you?"
The producers say the aim of the show was to act as a deterrent to other would-be criminals. And while there are up to 55 crimes in China that carry a potential death penalty sentence, the show focused exclusively on cases of violent murder. The show also got Henan province’s High Court approval for each case that was featured.
"Many people say I’m an angel and devil. I never thought myself as an angel, because it’s work that puts me into contact with these people. I see myself more as a witness," Ding told the BBC in their 50-minute-long documentary.
While 58 countries in the world impose the death penalty, China is believed to have the highest number of executions annually. The exact number is considered to be a "state secret," but the government argues it’s dropped steadily since early 2007 when the Supreme Court took back the right to have the final say on all death verdicts from local courts.
A 2011 report from Amnesty International indicates China executed thousands of people in 2010.
While it’s hard to determine the exact number, Ding’s show does offer some indication of how big they are, according to He Weifang, a law professor at Peking University. "Ding Yu interviewed 226 prisoners sentenced to death in five years. My guess is all these cases were tried in Henan Province and they only represent part of the whole situation. You can imagine how big the number is nationwide,” He commented on his blog.
Many scholars and lawyers have argued for the abolishment of the death penalty, but in a country with rampant corruption (which is also a capital crime over a certain financial amount), there seems to be little real movement to outlaw it.
With all the international attention on the show, there have been concerns about whether or not it would continue to air.
"We were very worried about the consequences after the documentary aired. Some media have distorted our program," Shirley Cheng, a producer from the Chinese production company LIC, told NBC News by phone. "We didn’t do it to discuss the death the penalty. We just wanted to record the process."
A BBC report on Monday claimed the show was taken off the air by Henan TV last Friday. When NBC News reached Henan Legal Channel and asked about it, we were told that was not the case.
The temporary "disappearance" of the show is apparently only making room for a new show, and "Interview before Execution" will come back on air in about six weeks.
However, on the channel’s official website, no links to Ding Yu’s program can be found, while information about other shows is available.