Ashen-faced, manacled and locked inside a steel cage, British fraud investigator Peter Humphrey confesses to his ‘crimes’.
From a forbidding Shanghai jail, dressed in an orange prison tunic and, he says, drugged with sedatives, he grovels to the dozen television cameras trained on him.
‘We obtained personal information by illegal means,’ he mumbles, his voice wavering. ‘I regret what I did and I apologise to the Chinese government.’
The humiliating 2013 footage was broadcast across Chinese media as well as – astonishingly – in Britain.
The apparent confession was a victory for the Communist regime in Beijing in its drive to stamp out corruption.
British fraud investigator Peter Humphrey (pictured) confessed to his ‘crimes’ in 2013 footage from a Shanghai jail, dressed in an orange prison tunic and, he says, drugged with sedatives
A Westerner accused of stealing private information and then confessing to his crimes in front of the TV cameras was a major coup for Xi Jinping’s nascent presidency and his ruthless purge of the country.
For such a significant news event, it was left to China’s star TV presenter James Chau to solemnly introduce the shocking footage to viewers. A Cambridge-educated British journalist, his clipped English accent gave the propaganda broadcast an air of legitimacy.
Mr Chau is a star in China and counts Meghan Markle among his close friends. They have been pictured arm-in-arm at high-profile charity events such as the One Young World Summit in 2016, where the pair were billed as ‘counsellors’ offering advice to young people.
Meghan has lavished praise on him in lengthy social media posts, describing him as a ‘savvy and charming gent’.
And Mr Chau was lionised internationally too, appointed a so-called ‘goodwill ambassador’ for the World Health Organisation.
Introducing the ‘confession’ footage, Mr Chau trumpeted: ‘The illegal acquisition and then the use of data is one of the fastest growing crimes in this country. But police in Shanghai have knocked a chink into that. They announced the owners of a foreign private investigation firm have been arrested on charges of illegally selling personal data belonging to Chinese nationals.’
But according to Mr Humphrey, the entire broadcast was a lie.
The investigator, who was arrested with his wife and business partner Yu Yingzeng while probing alleged corruption at pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline, insists that the footage masked the truth of his ordeal.
Mr Humphrey claims that he and his wife are innocent and the so-called ‘confession’ was a sham – confected from doctored footage captured after he had been plied with sedatives.
Speaking from his home in Surrey, 64-year-old Mr Humphrey told The Mail on Sunday: ‘It was a travesty of my human rights. I was stripped of my dignity, drugged, caged and had my words twisted to create the impression I confessed. But I never did and I never will.
Cambridge-educated British journalist and China’s star TV presenter James Chau (pictured with Meghan Markle) was left to solemnly introduce the shocking footage to viewers
‘The grief and humiliation I suffered was overwhelming. During that forced confession and the two years I endured in prison, they set out to crush my spirit. I’m left with scars that are still healing.’
Five years after his release from prison and his return to the UK, Mr Humphrey, who is still seeking redress in the American courts, continues to suffer post-traumatic stress disorder for which he receives treatment.
It was only once he returned to the UK that Mr Humphrey also received treatment for a prostate tumour. He says he was denied medical help for it in jail because he refused to sign a confession.
While Mr Humphrey was in prison, Mr Chau was enjoying the rewards of his high-profile career on state-owned China Central Television and basking in the adulation heaped upon him by Meghan Markle.
In a gushing post on her blog The Tig, the future Duchess of Sussex wrote in 2015: ‘Sometimes you meet a person and just click. You fall into an easy banter, find them equal parts inspiring and entertaining, and you feel absolutely tickled to have made a new friend. (Something that gets harder as you get older – if you were born after 1985, trust me on this). Such was the case when I met James Chau at One Young World last fall in Dublin.
‘Little did I know that this savvy and charming gent is a broadcaster and writer who has interviewed world figures [of] the likes of Winnie Mandela and Robert Mugabe; that he’s an award winning journalist and news anchor who captured an audience of 85 million (yes, 85 million) for over a decade at the helm of China Central Television.
‘Many moons ago, my friend Misan told me that James and I would connect some day, and the moment we did it all made sense. James is a UNAIDS Goodwill Ambassador, a graduate of Cambridge, and a lover of culture and arts. You know how I often rattle on about ‘being the change you wish to see in the world’. Well, he’s the guy that’s doing just that. Authentically, and passionately.’
Five years after his release from prison and his return to the UK, Mr Humphrey, who is still seeking redress in the American courts, continues to suffer post-traumatic stress disorder for which he receives treatment
Last week, however, the WHO announced it would now ‘review’ Mr Chau’s role at the organisation. And a spokesperson for the UN’s Aids organisation said Mr Chau’s term as ambassador had ended in 2016.
However, the organisation only removed his profile from their website last month, after the WHO announced it was investigating him.
While the extent of Mr Chau’s knowledge of how Mr Humphrey’s alleged forced confession was obtained is not known, he became – even if unwittingly – the public face of it.
From the moment of his arrest at his 22nd floor Shanghai apartment in July 2013, six weeks before his ‘confession’, Mr Humphrey insisted on his innocence. Officers from the feared Shanghai Municipal Bureau of Public Security raided and ransacked the property, searching for incriminating evidence.
Mr Humphrey was in the shower when the police arrived and as he emerged, his bedroom door was ripped off its hinges, sending him flying across the room and causing injuries that still afflict him today.
He was separated from his wife, unaware it would be the last time they would see each other for 700 days, and dragged away.
Weeks of being locked up in Shanghai Detention Centre – a bleak jail where Mr Humphrey shared a 12ft by 15ft cell with 12 other inmates and was subjected, he says, to daily interrogations – took their toll on his injuries.
On the day of his ‘confession’, he was given a pill which prison doctors said would ease the pain and soothe his repeated panic attacks but which made him drowsy and pliable instead.
Mr Humphrey had been told this was his chance to ‘meet the media’ and tell his true story to the world. He refused television cameras but said that he would talk to newspaper journalists.
‘I wasn’t comfortable with doing anything but when you’ve been under duress and you’re offered some kind of lifeline, you take it. I was told that if I did it, they would look at my case more favourably.’
The World Health Organisation announced it would ‘review’ Mr Chau’s role at the organisation and he has also been removed from the UN’s Aids organisation website, after the WHO announced it was investigating him
That Monday morning, as he was led out of his cell dressed in a new orange vest and flanked by two warders, he was ambushed by a scrum of photographers and cameramen.
Mr Humphrey was led into an interrogation room where his chief inquisitors throughout his first few months of hell, Ding Zhidong from the Third Brigade of the Shanghai Criminal Investigation Department, and a man called Mr Bao, waited to question him.
The room was set up like a tribunal with a podium and a bench along which sat a number of prison officers.
The guards, who were usually dressed in plain clothes, wore uniform for the occasion and to impress the television cameras, Mr Humphrey believes.
In the centre of the room was a steel-barred cage containing a so-called ‘tiger chair’ with a steel bar that sat across Mr Humphrey’s lap. He recalls one camera with a China Central Television logo.
Mr Humphrey had not yet been convicted of any crimes – that would come months later with his trial – but was already made to feel like a criminal.
‘I was completely surrounded by officers, dazed, manacled and with cameras pointing at me through the bars. I was fighting for my life like a caged animal. It was horrifying.’
ANONYMOUS LONDON HUB FOR BEIJING’S PROPAGANDA
Tucked away in a West London business park, this non-descript grey building is at the nerve centre of Chinese state media’s expansion into Europe.
Occupying 30,000sq ft of office space in Chiswick, China Global Television’s European hub beams state-approved broadcasts into living rooms across Britain.
The channel – the international arm of China Central Television – last year launched an ambitious recruitment drive in London, with plans to hire up to 300 journalists, presenters and producers.
But the station has faced controversy in the UK, where it is subject to a number of ongoing investigations by regulator Ofcom, including one into its broadcast of Mr Humphrey’s alleged forced confession.
Last month, the channel was censured for failing to remain impartial on five occasions last year when it covered the Hong Kong pro-democracy protests.
Even now, Mr Humphrey remains tormented by memories of the cage and endures disturbing flashbacks of being trapped.
Inspector Ding’s questions were framed to extract a confession but Mr Humphrey refused.
‘I was trying to walk a narrow tightrope of pleasing the officers without incriminating myself. The closest I came was using conditionals such, ‘If I had broken the law, then I would be sorry’ but I never, ever confessed.’
The resulting footage was broadcast to televisions across China on Chinese Central Television as well as in Britain on the channel’s international arm CGTN.
For Mr Humphrey, convinced it had been edited to show he had confessed, the footage was ‘unrecognisable’.
‘I had not been allowed to see a lawyer beforehand. It was an obvious propaganda exercise, timed just days after the charges against me had been set out and as international attention was growing,’ he said.
‘After the confession, they led me away from the cage, telling me I had done well, but I just felt crushed, helpless. Believe it or not, even Chinese law promises a fair trial but I felt I had been denied all justice. I was furious.’
Mr Humphrey’s disgust for the regime is hard to reconcile with the proud Sinophile he was when he arrived in the country as a bright-eyed postgraduate student at Durham University, in 1979.
As China emerged from the shadow of the so-called Cultural Revolution – Mao Tse-Tung’s oppressive programme of anti-capitalist policies that led to millions of deaths – Mr Humphrey was drawn to the newly invigorated country.
‘I realised it was an important country and that exciting things were about to happen,’ he says.
He took a job teaching English at what was then the Peking Languages Institute, where he met his wife who was one of his students.
‘It wasn’t long before I fell in love with the country, its people and its culture. I would always tell my students, ‘use your body and your brain to help your country’.’
He spent almost two decades as a journalist for Reuters, covering the 1997 handover of Hong Kong from Britain to China, before leaving the following year. He then worked for Kroll, the American corporate investigations firm, before moving to the blue-chip accountancy firm PwC, in charge of its investigations department in Beijing.
Mr Humphrey’s language skills and intimate knowledge of the country became invaluable to foreign companies seeking to do business in China.
In 2003, he and Yingzeng decided to strike out on their own, setting up a company called ChinaWhys, specialising in fraud prevention and risk management.
By then, My Humphrey had become a stalwart of the expat and Chinese community, a philanthropist who became president of the Rotary Club and founded the China branch of the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners.
The couple’s son Harvey, who grew up bilingual, attended the Beijing branch of Dulwich College, before studying engineering at Bristol University.
Looking back, Mr Humphrey sees 2008 and the Beijing Olympics as China’s zenith. ‘I remember sitting in the Bird’s Nest stadium with tears in my eyes. The country had come so far and had begun to open itself to the world. There was greater liberalisation and emerging professions such as law and accountancy. It was a brilliant time to be in the country.
‘But things took a downward spiral from that point. Civil liberties were curtailed, defence lawyers were thrown in jail and accountants were controlled by the government.’
Mr Humphrey (pictured), who was arrested with his wife and business partner Yu Yingzeng while probing alleged corruption at pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline, insists that the footage masked the truth of his ordeal and was a sham
It is telling that Mr Humphrey’s arrest coincided with the election of president Xi Jinping, a leader he describes as a ‘dictator’ who he holds responsible for the government’s ‘bungled’ handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
Although there is much he is unable to discuss about his involvement with GSK due to an ongoing legal case, he and his wife were hired by the drug giant to look into a former employee in China who, they were told, was making false allegations about the firm.
The person, it emerged, was a whistleblower who had revealed GSK’s practice of bribes in China. And when Chinese authorities cracked down on GSK, they also swept up the husband-and-wife team.
The couple are still pursuing GSK in the courts in Philadelphia for allegedly misleading them on what the job was about and exposing them to legal risks in China they could not have foreseen.
But the company said last night: ‘GSK continues to believe that this lawsuit is without merit and does not belong in the US court system.’
Last year, after Mr Humphrey filed a complaint, the UK broadcasting regulator Ofcom launched an investigation into CGTN over its broadcast of his alleged forced confession. A decision is expected shortly.
A condemnation would be a small victory on the path to exoneration. His and Yingzeng’s ten-year ban from entering China remains in place until 2025 but Mr Humphrey hopes that a new regime might bring that forward, as well prompt an admission that they were wrongly imprisoned.
Now Mr Humphrey reflects on how his family gave him the strength to endure the tough years he spent in jail in China. With a sense of nostalgia, he still uses an old Nokia mobile phone that his son bought to speak to him in prison.
Five years on, he still remembers the moment he was reunited with his wife in a dingy hotel after being released.
With tears in his eyes, he recalls: ‘The police officer asked me if I wanted to see my wife again. He gestured out into the hall and I walked out to find her standing there.
‘I remember the hotel music started playing Come Together by the Beatles and we embraced. It was a moment at times I wasn’t sure would ever happen again.’