Dissidents abused in psychiatric clinics, Falun Gong says

Philip P. Pan The Washington Post
International Herald Tribune, Tuesday, August 27, 2002

BEIJING The police officer was on the run. Like others in the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement, Fang Lihong had been fired, imprisoned and forced to attend months of intense “deprogramming” classes. But unlike most, he was then committed to a psychiatric hospital.

“I was terrified,” Fang said last year during an interview at a tavern in central China after escaping from the hospital. “I’m not mentally ill, but I was trapped with the other patients for 16 months.”

At first, he said, doctors at the Kang- ning Psychiatric Hospital in the northern city of Anshan forced him to take medication. Later, they let him take the pills to his room and discard them, Fang said. The doctors told him they knew he was sane but were under orders from his superiors in the police department to “treat” him, he said.

During the interview, Fang spoke clearly and appeared rational. Afterward, he slipped out a side door and went back into hiding.

In February, according to Falun Gong officials in the United States, the police caught him in southern Fujian Province, and he died in their custody, apparently from physical abuse. A doctor at Kangning confirmed that the mental hospital had treated Fang and had been informed of his death, but he declined to discuss the case further.

Stories such as Fang’s and others alleging psychiatric abuse of dissidents have prompted an increasingly contentious debate over whether the Chinese government is systematically confining people in mental hospitals for political reasons as the Soviet Union did in the 1970s and 1980s.

China’s ruling Communist Party has denied the allegations of psychiatric abuse and labored to defend its human rights record ahead of the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. No major member of the association has been forced out since the Soviet Union withdrew under threat of expulsion in 1982.

There is little evidence that Chinese mental hospitals have been used to silence well-known, prominent dissidents. China has begun an aggressive defense of its record, focusing on Falun Gong members it says are truly mentally ill.

The campaign to expose psychiatric abuse in China began last year with the publication of a detailed report by Robin Munro, a British academic who served as the chief China researcher for Human Rights Watch during the 1990s.

The report relied primarily on articles discovered in Chinese psychiatric textbooks and medical journals that describe a system in which forensic psychiatrists diagnose “political criminals” with mental illnesses just as routinely as they do other criminals. These criminals are spared prison terms or execution and sent to police-run institutes for the criminally insane, known as Ankang Hospitals.

Based on statistics reported in the Chinese documents, Munro estimated that at least 3,000 people charged with some kind of political crime in the past two decades were referred for psychiatric evaluation by the police, and that most of them were deemed mentally ill and confined in the Ankang system.

Munro has been unable to put names behind the numbers. He said the Ankang system was highly secretive, and the authorities generally used it against lesser known “political criminals.”

Only two political dissidents inside the Ankang system are known to the outside world. One is Wang Miaogen, who helped found the Shanghai Workers Autonomous Federation in May 1989 and reportedly was committed to the Shanghai Ankang Hospital in 1993.

The other is Wang Wanxing, a worker who unfurled a banner in Tiananmen Square in 1992 to commemorate the third anniversary of the military crackdown on the student-led protests there. His wife, Wang Junying, said the police at the time tricked her into signing papers indicating her husband was mentally ill by saying he would be released in a few months. But 10 years later, at the age of 52, he remains confined in the Beijing Ankang Hospital.

A few months ago, Wang said, the authorities offered to release her husband into her custody if she agreed that he was mentally ill and took responsibility for his actions. She said she and her husband refused, and in response the hospital moved him to a ward holding violent inmates.

“How can they do this to a healthy person?” she said. “They couldn’t charge him with a crime, so they put him in a hospital. It’s just an excuse to persecute him.”

Privately, Chinese psychiatrists asked why the authorities would bother putting dissidents in mental hospitals when they could so easily send them to labor camps or prisons. Munro said the government might find it more convenient to silence some critics by hospitalizing them than by putting them on trial.

He emphasized that most Chinese psychiatrists were ethical and that official statistics showed a steady decline in political psychiatric cases during the 1980s and 1990s. But he said that progress was threatened when the government declared war in 1999 against Falun Gong, the Buddhist-like spiritual movement it labeled an evil cult after it appeared to threaten the Communist Party’s monopoly on power.

Falun Gong says 1,000 of its members have been forcibly committed.

“We only treat those practitioners who have mental disorders, and only with the consent of family members,” said Zhou Dongfeng, vice chairwoman of the Chinese Society of Psychiatry. Given that estimates of Falun Gong followers sometimes exceed one million, it is reasonable to expect several hundred to suffer from mental illnesses, she said.

World body to investigate

The New York Times reported from Beijing:

The world’s leading psychiatric association voted Monday to send a delegation of experts to China to look into charges that Chinese psychiatric hospitals are being used to silence political and religious dissidents.

Officials of the World Psychiatric Association, which is meeting in Yokohama, Japan, said that Chinese health officials had been cooperative and were taking part in discussions on the topic.

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