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China's mental hospitals: a new push to quash dissent?

Forced commitments to China's mental hospitals are rising on the local-government level, lawyers and activists say.

By / Staff writer / June 9, 2011

Zhen Ran was released in 2008 after five months confinement in a Beijing mental hospital. His Internet posts had criticized the government.

Peter Ford/The Christian Science Monitor

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Beijing

When Zheng Ran felt that he had been unfairly denied a promotion at the branch of the Bank of Beijing where he worked, he decided to strike back.

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Little did he think that his outspoken series of Internet posts, alleging financial misdeeds at the bank, would land him in a mental asylum.

His public accusations, however, which he broadened into increasingly sharp criticisms of the Chinese government, made him a troublemaker in the eyes of the authorities. And in May 2008, just before the Beijing Olympics, troublemakers were especially unwanted.

All it took to have him forcibly committed to a mental hospital, he recalls, telling his story calmly and lucidly, was an hour-long talk with two police doctors who diagnosed him as suffering from "paranoid disorders."

"The police told my parents that since the Olympics were coming up and it would cost too much to monitor me at home, there was nowhere else to put me," Mr. Zheng says.

Zheng's case is typical of an increasingly common phenomenon, lawyers and activists say: Local authorities determined to silence citizens who criticize the government find the easiest and quickest way to deal with them is to lock them away in an asylum.

The practice gained national attention in April when Xu Wu, a former security guard at a steel mill in Wuhan, was dragged from a TV station in the southern city of Guangzhou, where he had just given an interview explaining his plight, by seven unidentified men.

He had escaped from a mental hospital managed by his employer, the Wuhan Iron and Steel Group, where he said he had been held for more than four years after petitioning local and central government officials to resolve a wage dispute with his employer.

Mr. Xu had submitted himself to a voluntary test of his mental health at a Guangzhou hospital, which reportedly found him quite sane, but he was nevertheless forcibly returned to the hospital and is still there, according to a lawyer who has taken up his case, Huang Xuetao.

Though most victims of forcible commitment are sent to mental asylums by their relatives or employers, lawyers say, local government officials also abuse the system by putting away people who challenge their authority or their interests.

Targeting petitioners

There are no signs that the central Chinese government is following the Soviet Union's practice of routinely committing political dissidents to psychiatric hospitals.

"The victims are often petitioners, people fighting for their rights, such as farmers whose land has been seized illegally, or people evicted from their homes" by developers, says Liu Feiyue, founder of Civil Rights and Livelihood Watch, a nongovernmental group that monitors such cases from its base in the central Chinese city of Suizhou.

"It's very widespread … it happens everywhere," says Mr. Liu, who has compiled a database of nearly 900 cases of forced psychiatric treatment ordered by local authorities.

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