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

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

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.

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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.

"Ordinary people like petitioners have not broken the law, so officials can't send them to prison. They find it more convenient and a better solution to put them in a mental hospital," he adds. "They turn mental hospitals into jails."

They are able to do so, explains a recent report prepared by the Equity and Justice Initiative, a Shenzhen-based research group, because "major flaws in the Chinese involuntary commitment system … expose every citizen to the threat of arbitrary commitment."

China still has no law regulating forced commitments, although different drafts have been under study for 25 years.

Any close relative, an employer, or the police can commit someone to a mental hospital against his will with the approval of one psychiatrist, and psychiatrists can be browbeaten by local government officials into giving their approval, lawyers say.

Nor do Chinese psychiatrists apply such internationally accepted standards for forcible admission as the risk of harm to self or others.

'Whoever sends you in gets you out'

Once a patient has been admitted it is almost impossible for him or her to seek legal redress.

Most victims are not allowed contact with the outside world, explains Chen Jihua, a doctor-turned-lawyer who was recently refused access to a client seeking release from an asylum. "And even if a lawyer does get involved it is still very difficult to do anything" in the absence of a law, he says.

Adding to an involuntary patient's plight is the unwritten rule that "whoever sends you in gets you out," says the Equity and Justice Initiative report, released last year. "Unless the 'patient' secures the agreement of the person who has recommended treatment, there is no way to leave an institution," the report finds.

Zheng only got out, after nearly five months, because his father – a former Air Force pilot – knocked on a lot of official doors, Zheng says.

In the meantime, held in a cell with three genuinely disturbed men, "I nearly went mad," he recalls. Doctors obliged him to take an anti-psychotic drug each day, which made him drowsy, but otherwise gave him no treatment, he says.

"The only way they consider you cured is when you admit that you were totally wrong," Zheng charges. "There are no courts, no judicial procedures; the police can handle things themselves and it's the most effective way to destroy you."

"At the moment, one party, the police, can decide if someone should be sent for forced treatment," Mr. Chen, the lawyer, points out. "That is not appropriate. There should be third-party judgment of such cases … by a judge or an independent committee."

A new draft law is due to be submitted to the government this year, but some lawyers battling to end abuses of the mental health system fear it may not solve the problem since it has been drawn up by psychiatrists using medical standards. Lawyers, who would like legal standards such as "danger to self or others" applied, have been excluded from the process.

"If the law aims to protect individual rights" it might end the practice of forcibly committing sane people to a mental hospital, says Liu Xiaohu, a researcher with the Equity and Justice Initiative. "But if it legalizes the current situation, it will make things worse."

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