The Chinese TV Show That Showed Death Row Inmates’ Last Minutes

“Many of us do not believe in capital punishment, because thus society takes from a man what society cannot give.” —Katharine Fullerton Gerould, Modes and Morals

In A Nutshell

The Chinese show Interviews Before Execution took reality TV to unsettling new levels. For six years, reporter Ding Yu interviewed death row inmates, many of whom were only minutes away from walking the green mile. As you might assume, the program was wildly popular, and it sometimes got a bit dramatic.

The Whole Bushel

Reporter Ding Yu is a celebrity in the Henan Province of Central China. Between 2006 and 2012, almost 40 million fans turned on their televisions each week to watch her in action. Wearing silk scarves and smart suits, this “Beauty with the Beasts” captivated audiences with one of the most disturbing shows in television history. Every Saturday night, Ding Yu found herself sitting across from death row inmates, often moments before they were going to die. Meant to deter would-be criminals, the show was called Interviews Before Execution, and it was a major hit.

It’s a well-known fact that the Chinese government is obsessed with the death penalty. While the numbers are a “state secret,” it’s believed China executes thousands of prisoners each year. These insane statistics are probably thanks to the fact that, in China, you can be executed for over 55 offenses, including bribery, smuggling, and embezzling. However, that makes for boring television, so Ding Yu’s show focuses exclusively on murderers. She’s interviewed scorned lovers, child killers, axe murderers, and more. One of her highest-rated episodes dealt with a man who murdered his mother. However, the episode was so popular because the criminal was openly gay, and homosexuality is severely frowned upon in the People’s Republic.

In preparation for each episode, Ding Yu reviewed numerous files, trying to find the perfect “guest.” After discovering a potential interviewee, she then asked permission of the Henan high court. After getting the go-ahead, Ding Yu had to move quickly since condemned prisoners are often executed days after sentencing. In fact, quite a few of the murderers were killed moments after the cameras stopped rolling. Thanks to the rather tense atmosphere, Interviews Before Execution captured several unsettling moments like a tearful prisoner collapsing, a convict offering a handshake, and one inmate asking Ding Yu if she thought he’d go to heaven. Through most of the episodes, Ding Yu kept her journalistic demeanor. though on occasions she’d offer to convey messages to loved ones. She also sometimes lost her cool and told prisoners they deserved their punishment.

It should come as no surprise that the program stirred up controversy, particularly in the Western world. However, Ding Yu never saw her show as unethical. In fact, she claims her program gave prisoners an opportunity to talk about their lives, confess their secrets, and unburden themselves. However, when the BBC and PBS International announced plans to air a documentary on the controversial show, the Chinese government canceled Interviews Before Execution to attempt to save the country from embarrassment. As for China’s troubling death penalty laws, well, that’s a problem that isn’t going away anytime soon.

Show Me The Proof

BBC News: China’s death row TV hit: Interviews Before Execution
Dangerous Minds: Fascinating, Disturbing Chinese Talk Show
ABC News: China’s Death Row Reality Show Axed from Air
NBC News: Chinese TV show ‘Interviews before Execution’ stirs controversy