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China's mental asylums accused of drugging, detaining and torturing political activists

By Jessica Wang

August 21, 2022

'I do not advise anyone who criticises the CCP to go back to China before Xi Jinping falls from power': dissident.

In the 13 years former Chinese political prisoner Wang Wanxing spent in a Chinese Ankang hospital, he was witness to scenes most would not believe.

Those held at the facilities were subjected to "basically sadistic" doctors and nurses, horrific attacks between inmates, with Wang drugging himself with schizophrenia medication to ensure a good night's sleep.

While the direct English translation of the word Ankang means "to be in a state of good health," the word also refers to the estimated 109 police-run psychiatric asylums which house mentally-disturbed criminals, as well as protesters, dissenters and critics of the Chinese government. The latter, like Wang, are detained by means of falsified diagnoses, with no medical justification.

While Wang was released from his Beijing institution in 2005, a recent report from the human rights group Safeguard Defenders reveals that very few improvements have been made to the barbaric system.

Electric shocks, chemical straight jackets and irons

In testimonies published by the Human Rights Watch, Wang was taken after he staged a one-man pro-democracy demonstration in Tiananmen Square in 1992. His actions marked the eve of the third anniversary of the June Fourth Incident which led to the Tiananmen Square massacre.

As punishment, authorities diagnosed him with "paranoid psychosis" or "political monomania".

In an excerpt from his medical report, released by the HRW, it read: "When the topic of conversation turns to politics … his [mental] activities are still characterised by delusions of grandeur, litigation mania, and a conspicuously enhanced pathological will".

"The later condition is not found in any internationally recognised list of psychiatric illnesses," they wrote in 2005. Subsequent interviews with HRW representatives, reported Wang as speaking lucidly and being in "reasonably good psychological health," despite his 13-year incarceration.

By way of treatment, Wang told German publication Die Zeit inmates were tortured using methods like electric shocks, insulin shocks, chemical straight jackets and red-hot irons.

He described the "extremely painful" and daily process of receiving the electric shocks, in which a needle was inserted into the inmates' lips. For those who gained tolerance to the pain, the voltage was adjusted between high and low settings. Speaking to the HRW, Wang said he once witnessed an inmate die of a heart attack mid-session.

"Sometimes all the inmates in a ward had to line up for punishment, one after the other, because nurses and doctors wanted to vent their frustration," he said in 2005, after he was given political asylum in Frankfurt, Germany.

Interviews conducted by Die Zeit with lesser-known political victims of China's Ankang system corroborated these claims.

Upon his release Wang said his parting words from the Ankang officials before he left for Germany were: "If you ever speak out about your experiences at our hospital, we'll come and bring you back here again."

'Maintain power at all costs'

Associate Professor in China Studies at Sydney's University of Technology, Professor Feng Chongyi, says China's use of mental torture and the falsified diagnosis of mental illness is typical of totalitarian regimes. The method was also used to abuse and repress political dissidents by the Soviet Union.

"It's how they maintain their rule and power at all costs," Prof Feng told

"In order to do so they need to eliminate any opponents, and labelling those opponents as mentally ill is one of their strategies.

"Because by law, or by a moral agenda, there's no reason to prosecute those people but one way to justify that persecution is to label them as mentally ill. That way they can easily lock them up or put them in jail."

In 2017, Prof Feng was detained in Guangzhou, China for a week and interrogated by authorities, while travelling to the country for a three-week research trip. He's also been a supporter for the return of Chinese-Australian author Yang Hengjun.

Dr Yang has been under CCP arrest in Beijing since January 2019 on charges of espionage. The writer was arrested at Guangzhou airport and has since faced harsh torture techniques and health issues like potential kidney failure.

In a message to his family, friends and supporters shared just before Christmas 2021, Dr Yang denied the charges.

"Sometimes, I'm pessimistic and sometimes, I'm optimistic — I'm confident I didn't do what they said I did," he said, as reported by the ABC.

"According to Chinese law, I'm not guilty. But they treat me like dirt here and they tortured me, I don't know why."

Prof Feng said the international awareness of the human rights abuses can afford prisoners some protection.

"If there's some force beyond [the Chinese government's] control, they will sometimes back off," he said.

During Wang's 13-year imprisonment, he says he was given a solitary cell, given monthly visits from his wife Wang Junying, and allowed to read books and newspapers.

However, the experiences of Ankang escapee Meng Xiaoxia, who had no global acclaim, appear more harrowing. Speaking to Die Zeit, she described her 10-year ordeal as "hell".

"I would rather die than go to Ankang again," said Meng Xiaoxia, who escaped a facility in Xian City in Western China.

During her time in the Ankang facility she said she was tied to her bed, received electroshock therapy three times and given strong psychotropic drugs like chlorpromazine – which is used to treat schizophrenia or manic-depression – and scopolamine – which can lead to side effects like acute psychosis, amnesia, and disorientation.

Another inmate, Jiang Tainlu was placed in a Beijing Ankang facility after protesting his father's murder, who he claimed was kicked to death by a government official over an illegal land grab. According to a report from Madrid-based organisation, Safeguard Defenders, he was initially take to Zhushan County Psychiatric Hospital in 2018, and has since been admitted to different facilities seven times.

He described forcibly given drugs and receiving electroconvulsive therapy that left him nauseous and dizzy.

"When the electricity came on, I would shake all over and then I would feel paralysed … After it was over, I would feel dizzy all day," he said, as reported by the human rights group.

"I felt nauseous and vomited. I was also weak, and I fell over when I tried to go to the bathroom."

Jiang was recently readmitted to another facility in January 2021. While his wife and sister attempted to rescue him from the hospital, they were unsuccessful, however they captured multiple photos which show Jiang at the Ankang institution.

China: 'Republic of disappearance'

According to Safeguard Defender's recent report on China's Ankang system, 99 people have been involuntary hospitalised between 2015 to 2021.

However, despite changes to criminal and civil law since 2012, which aimed to protect the legal rights of patients and avoid involuntary commitment (which was a first for the country), no "substantial improvement to the systematic political abuse of psychiatry" were made.

"The majority of victims are petitioners, people who often struggle on the lowest rungs of the social ladder in China and are thus powerless and easy targets," the report stated.

Given the recent report from Safeguard Defenders, there's an extra, unshakeable weight in Wang's 2005 interview with The Guardian.

When asked if he'd ever return to China, he said: "Not at the moment. But I expect there will be changes in China by 2008. It might be possible then".

While 14 years has passed since Wang's half-hearted deadline, Prof Feng also issued a stark warning for any foreign travellers or individuals critical of the CCP regime or President Xi Jinping.

"China has a very bad name as a republic of disappearance," he said.

"If you are not known to the international community, you may simply disappear and be placed in black jails (a network of unofficial prisons which the CCP have denied), and then tortured without the notice of anyone else.

"I do not advise anyone who criticises the CCP to go back to China before Xi Jinping falls from power."

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