China's confession culture

Fang Lizhi has had decades to reflect on China’s culture of political confessions.

The astrophysicist and key figure in the 1989 citizens protests here spent a year sheltered in the US embassy in Beijing before laborious US-China negotiations paved the way for him to flee to the United States, where he lives in exile. In a new, must-read essay in the New York Review of Books, Fang explains the complexity and importance of apologies and confessions in China.

“Anyone who has lived through political campaigns in recent Chinese history knows this much about the confession culture: solving a ‘problem’ has little if anything to do with actual repentance or admission of guilt,” writes Fang. “So long as the underlying problem remains, no number of ‘confessions’ changes anything.”

“In short, ‘confessions’ in this culture are formalities,” he continues. “They have more to do with face than with actual negotiations.”