The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion How China weaponizes psychiatry against dissent

Chinese President Xi Jinping is seen on a large screen during an even at Beijing's National Stadium on June 28, 2021. (NOEL CELIS/AFP via Getty Images)

A decade ago, China passed laws dealing with mental illness, seeking to bury the arbitrary practices of the past, when psychiatric treatment was often used as a tool of political control. In 2012, it passed a new criminal procedure code that mandated a judicial review before someone accused of a crime could be involuntarily committed. In 2013, it put into effect a new mental health law that barred involuntary commitment except in cases involving danger to others.

Now, a disturbing new report charges that China’s reform failed and that psychiatric hospitals are still being used for political repression in pursuit of the Communist Party’s overriding goal of maintaining stability. The report, by Safeguard Defenders, a nongovernmental human rights group, is based on 144 sources, mostly victims and families who described forced hospitalization in psychiatric hospitals between 2015 and 2021. The report says this limited sample may be only the tip of the iceberg and concludes that the reform laws “did not bring about any substantial improvement to the systematic political abuse of psychiatry in China.”

China tries to silence people, deter others from protest, and stigmatize those who dissent or complain, the group says. Patients are subject to “arbitrary detention, beatings, forced medication, electroconvulsive therapy and repeated incarceration.” Many patients are not given psychiatric evaluations or a court review, as required by law, before they are committed. The bottom line, the report says, is a system “where victims are trapped in a nightmare.”

In one case that attracted international attention, Dong Yaoqiong, known as the “ink girl,” live-streamed herself in 2018 splashing ink on a poster of President Xi Jinping to protest “tyranny.” She was committed to Hunan’s Zhuzhou No. 3 Hospital, a psychiatric institution, according to Radio Free Asia. Released in 2019, she was sent back in 2020, tied to her bed and beaten when she refused medication, the Safeguard report says, adding that she was released and then recommitted a third time and is believed still to be there. Almost a third of the cases it studied involved patients who were sent to psychiatric hospitals two or more times, the group said. In addition to human rights activists, many poor, rural Chinese are being sucked into this system simply for petitioning government offices for redress.

Starting in the 1980s, China’s Ministry of Public Security, the police, administered its own psychiatric hospital system, known as Ankang, of which there are around 25 hospitals. But the report found most of the current abuse occurs in general psychiatric facilities, of which there are more than 1,600 in China. Of the 144 cases examined, only four took place in an Ankang hospital. The “political abuse of psychiatry is widespread geographically and routinely practiced in China,” the report says. The authorities use it “to conveniently punish and remove activists and petitioners from society without the trouble of going through a trial.”

This is life under China’s dictatorship — where reforms are ignored, laws mean little and those who complain are ­considered mentally ill.

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