Like any television presenter, Ding Yu takes a professional interest in how she's going to appear on screen. Early in This World: Interviews Before Execution, she could be seen sending a runner off to fetch her a purple chair that would go better with the blouse she was wearing. But she presumably hadn't thought at all about how she might appear on British screens, and so she was casually unguarded as she talked about the unlikely scheduling hit that she developed and fronts. The pitch is simple: Ding interviews death row inmates just weeks, days or, even, in some cases, minutes before their sentences are carried out. The show, a queasy mix of true crime and ostentatious moralising, is a big hit in Henan province. And nobody – not even the criminals themselves – appears to have questioned whether it might just be in bad taste.
Ding herself clearly believes that she's carrying out an important social duty at some personal risk. "I have too much rubbish in my heart," she said tearfully, explaining the toll her job takes on her. But she also believes that the sight of the condemned, hunched and miserable as she presses them on the details of their crimes, will have a powerful deterrent effect. She believes too (with some justification, it has to be said) that she's doing the prisoners themselves a favour. They have to agree to be interviewed and while you can't rule out coercion most of them seem almost relieved to be addressed as human, and offered the opportunity to express remorse.
Which didn't do a lot to put your jaw back in place as you watched the show itself. Ding is pretty good at digging a knuckle into a man's tenderest spot and doesn't hesitate to do it: "Anything to say to your daughter?" she asked one wretched man, who'd killed his ex-wife and burned down the house, "You can tell her and we will relay it." More disturbingly, she's also allowed to film the final meeting between condemned prisoners and their relatives, hovering for the tears and the misery of people who didn't commit the crime but can't avoid a share of the punishment. And most disturbingly of all, she seemed to have colluded in springing a mother-and-child reunion on a female prisoner who hadn't seen her daughter since she was convicted. The girl herself believed that she was the natural daughter of her mother's sister-in-law, a belief that can't easily have survived this encounter.
Two caveats on any casually superior dismissal of Chinese television ethics though. The first is that later this month, Channel 4 will screen Death Row Stories, a series of interviews between the director Werner Herzog and American prisoners sentenced to death that will almost certainly be received as a serious sociological endeavour while feeding very similar appetites that make Chinese viewers tune in every week. And the second is that Interviews Before Execution carried within it a fascinating hint that attitudes to the death penalty are shifting in China at a government level. It ended with an interview with a senior judge, expressing the view that the punishment should one day be abolished. She wouldn't have done that without checking first.
Is there anybody who can look quite as pleased with himself as Niall Ferguson? He is prodigiously self-satisfied in China: Triumph and Turmoil, the first of a three-part series about China's journey to superpower status, which began with a lightning history lesson, from first emperor to Hu Jintao. The content is fascinating and timely but the delivery is infuriating – oddly confiding and condescending by turns. Two caveats here too. Does Ferguson read Chinese, or is he just pretending? And why did he make such heavy weather about understanding the old civil service exam ordeal of the Eight Legged Essay? I looked it up on Wikipedia and it's just an elaborate template.