Human rights! Democracy! You must be insane!

Matthew X profrv at
Tue Apr 20 14:42:37 PDT 1999

Robin Munro
During the 1970s and 1980s, reports that the security authorities in the 
Soviet Union were incarcerating substantial numbers of dissidents in mental 
asylums aroused widespread concern in the West. As the quantity and 
reliability of the documentary evidence and victim testimonies steadily 
increased, the issue of politically directed psychiatry in the Soviet Union 
quickly became, along with political imprisonment and the refusal of the 
authorities to allow Soviet Jews to emigrate, a third principal item of 
human rights contention in Soviet-Western relations. By January 1983, a 
protracted campaign by Western psychiatric professional bodies and 
international human rights organizations led to a decision by the Soviet 
All-Union Society of Psychiatrists and Neuropathologists to withdraw from 
the World Psychiatric Association in order to avoid almost certain 
expulsion. It was not readmitted to the body until 1989, after several 
years of perestroika and the preliminary establishment of direct access by 
Western psychiatric delegations to Soviet forensic-psychiatric institutions 
and their alleged mentally ill political inmates.
The subject of forensic psychiatry in China has thus far received little 
academic attention outside of China. A number of very detailed and 
informative studies of China's general psychiatric and mental healthcare 
system have been written, but these have rarely addressed the legal or 
forensic dimension of the topic in significant depth. In particular, very 
little documentary or other evidence has hitherto come to light suggesting 
that abusive practices similar to those that occurred in the former Soviet 
Union might also have existed, or might even still be found, in China. The 
general assumption has therefore been that the Chinese authorities, despite 
their poor record in many other areas of human rights concern, have at 
least never engaged in the political misuse of psychiatry. This article 
seeks to challenge and correct that assumption.
 From the early 1990s onwards, scattered reports from China began to 
indicate that individual dissidents and other political nonconformists were 
being subjected to forensic psychiatric appraisal by the police and then 
committed to special psychiatric hospitals on an involuntary and indefinite 
basis. One prominent example was that of Wang Wanxing, a middle-aged worker 
who had first been arrested in the mid-1970s for supporting the then 
officially denounced policies of Deng Xiaoping. Partially rehabilitated 
after the death of Mao, Wang resumed his political-activist career in the 
1980s and became personally acquainted with the student leaders of the 
spring 1989 pro-democracy movement in Beijing. In June 1992, he unfurled a 
banner in Tiananmen Square calling for greater human rights and democracy 
in China, was immediately arrested, and then sent to an institution for the 
criminally insane in the outskirts of the capital, where he remained - 
diagnosed by police psychiatrists as a "paranoid psychotic" - until early 
1999. In November of that year, after he announced his intention to hold a 
press conference with foreign journalists to discuss his ordeal, he was 
again detained and sent back to the same psychiatric detention facility for 
an indeterminate period. Wang's case and others like it have been the 
subject of several statements of concern to the Chinese authorities by 
relevant bodies of the United Nations.
Another recent example is that of Xue Jifeng, an unofficial labor-rights 
activist who in December 1999 was detained by police in Zhengzhou, the 
capital of Henan Province, for attempting to hold a meeting with other 
labor activists and independent trades-unionists. He was then committed 
involuntarily to the Xinxiang Municipal Mental Hospital, where he remained 
as of December 2000. Xue was reportedly being force-fed psychiatric drugs 
and held in a room with mental patients who kept him awake at night and 
harassed him by day. Moreover, this was his second forced term in a mental 
hospital for "illegal" labor activities. The first came in November 1998, 
after he tried to pursue legal action against local Party officials who he 
alleged had swindled, through a bogus commercial fundraising scheme, 
thousands of his fellow residents of their life savings. On that occasion, 
more than 2,000 people staged a public demonstration in Zhengzhou demanding 
their money back and calling for Xue's release.
Finally, in July 1999, the Chinese government launched a major and 
continuing campaign of repression against the Falun Gong spiritual 
movement, a neotraditional sectarian group, several months after the group 
staged a massive peaceful demonstration outside the Zhongnanhai 
headquarters of the Chinese leadership. Over the past year or so, numerous 
reports have appeared indicating that practitioners of Falun Gong were also 
being forcibly sent to mental hospitals by the police authorities. The 
overseas Falun Gong support network has so far compiled details of around 
100 named individuals who have been dealt with in this manner, while 
overall estimates suggest the total number may be as high as 600. To date, 
reports indicate that three Falun Gong practitioners have died as a direct 
result of their detention and mistreatment in Chinese mental asylums.
These disturbing cases highlight the need for a comprehensive reexamination 
of our previous understanding of the role and purposes of forensic 
psychiatry in China, both historically and contemporaneously.
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