China Poised to Limit Use of Mental Hospitals to Curb Dissent
The hardest thing about being imprisoned in a psychiatric hospital is keeping your sanity.
Li Jinping knows. The 47-year-old political activist spent seven months in Beijing’sChaoyang District Mental Health Center, heavily sedated. If he refused his drugs, he would be tied to his bed.
Unlike other patients, he wasn’t allowed to walk in the garden, use the library or receive visitors. In fact, his family didn’t even know he was there; the police had registered him in the hospital under a false name.
“I knew if I got agitated or emotional, they would keep me longer. I was videotaped the whole time,” Li said. “I stayed calm until I had a plan to get out.”
With no arrest papers and no trials required, Chinese authorities commonly resort to forced psychiatric hospitalization if someone is considered a troublemaker but hasn’t committed a crime. The tactic is frequently used to silence dissidents, political activists and people who make themselves a nuisance with complaints about unpaid wages, confiscated land and other injustices.
Now, for the first time, Chinese lawmakers have drafted a law spelling out when people can be confined to psychiatric hospitals against their will.
A draft published last year by the State Council,China’sequivalent of a Cabinet, gives family members and patients the right to appeal. Human rights advocates lobbied, successfully, to remove a clause that would allow a person to be committed for “creating a public disturbance.” At a meeting of the National People’s Congress this month, top legislator Wu Bangguo listed the mental health law as one of the top items on the agenda for the coming year.
Psychiatrists and mental health advocates say the legislation can’t come soon enough.
“There are more and more people being sent to psychiatric hospitals,” said Liu Feiyue, head of Civil Rights and Livelihood Watch, a Suzhou-based rights group. “Authorities see that social conflicts are worsening, and they want to strengthen their control over unstable elements of society.”
His group has a database of more than 900 cases of forced hospitalizations, which he says are a drop in the bucket of total cases. In addition to regular psychiatric hospitals such as the one where Li was held, the Ministry of Public Security runs its own hospitals, known as ankang, for people they deem dangerous.
Psychiatry gradually has been gaining respectability in China, and psychiatrists were called in to consult in several recent crises: a spate of suicides among young technology workers at the Foxconn plant in southern China that produces iPads and a wave of fatal stabbings of schoolchildren. But the profession is still tainted by its image as a tool of repression.