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China forcing political critics into psychiatric hospitals: report

Victims allegedly subjected to electroshock therapy, forced druggings

By YIU, Nikkei staff writer

August 16, 2022 13:39 JST

China has a history of confining political critics with no history of mental illness to police-run psychiatric hospitals and other state-operated facilities. (Source photos by AP)

HONG KONG -- Chinese authorities are pushing political critics into psychiatric hospitals where they are subjected to electroshock therapy and forced drugging nearly a decade after the country passed laws against such abuse, a new report said on Tuesday.

The study published by Madrid-based rights group Safeguard Defenders drew on the testimony of 99 people over a period of seven years, with alleged victims saying they were also placed in isolation for long periods and tied to beds where they were forced to lie in their own excrement.

Confining critics with no history of mental illness to police-run psychiatric hospitals known as ankang has been a problem for decades, but the report said victims were also now being placed in other medical facilities, including those run by China's health ministry. The report documented at least 109 ankang and similar facilities nationwide.

The data, compiled by Chinese nongovernmental organization Civil Rights and Livelihood Watch and analyzed by Safeguard Defenders, is only "the tip of the iceberg," said the report's author Yanxin Mou.

"Unfortunately, there is no public data or any available channel to properly estimate the scale of China's ankang system," she said, describing it as a "black hole."

"It is completely secretive so only cases we can know about are those told by victims or family members who report to media or human rights NGOs."

But the issue has fallen through the cracks owing to a crackdown on civil society groups and citizen journalists in recent years, she added.

Forced hospitalizations have continued to be a problem because Chinese authorities see them as a way to enforce political stability, according to Gao Jan, author of the book "Being Mentally Disordered: Intentional Misdiagnosis of Mental Illness in China."

Surveillance and house arrest are among other methods that authorities use to silence critics, rights groups said.

China's Ministry of Public Security and National Health Commission did not respond to request for comment on the report.

Safeguard Defenders' report -- which documented testimony between 2015 and 2021 -- found that in more than half the cases, doctors had failed to conduct psychiatric evaluations before admission, violating a national mental health law that came into effect in 2013.

The legislation, which requires inpatient treatment and hospitalization to be voluntary unless a person poses a danger to themselves or others, was meant to close loopholes that allowed police or even relatives to forcibly commit a person to a psychiatric ward.

"We found evidence of this abuse taking place every year that data was collected," the report said. "One-third of victims were sent back into psychiatric prison again and again, with one victim locked up 20 times.... Inside the psychiatric wing, victims were forcibly medicated, subjected to painful electroshock therapy without anesthesia, beaten and tied to a bed, and left to lie in their own waste."

In one case, 30-year-old Dong Yaoqiong was detained by authorities after uploading a video of herself splashing ink on a portrait of Chinese President Xi Jinping in July 2018 and sent for psychiatric treatment in southern Hunan Province.

Dong was put under 24-hour surveillance and forced to take antipsychotic medication, the report said. She was quietly released after more than a year but put back into the hospital in May 2020 where she suffered beatings and was tied to her bed.

Dong, who was released six months later, showed signs of dementia and suffered from night terrors, according to the report. She was sent back to the hospital in early 2021. Her current whereabouts is unknown.

The World Psychiatric Association (WPA) and the U.S. State Department condemned China's ankang system in 2002.

The WPA did not respond to questions about the new findings in Safeguard Defenders' report.

"There is no law in the world that allows the government to force non-mentally ill people into psychiatric institutions, and these methods are not only in violation of international human rights law, but also in violation of Chinese domestic laws," Mou said.

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