Chinese government uses psychiatric hospitals to silence human rights defenders
August 30, 2012
Prominent human-rights lawyer Jin Guanghong was walking down a street in Beijing one day in April 2011 when he was grabbed by several unidentified men, who threw a black hood over his head and stuffed him into the back of a car. The men, believed to be national security officers, later placed him in a psychiatric hospital where doctors tied him up, force-fed him medicine and gave him unknown injections, all against his will. When he was released about 10 days later, he had no idea about what exactly had happened to him during the frightening ordeal.
Jin’s story is just one of hundreds of thousands of similar incidents each year in China, in which people—many with no obvious mental disabilities—are locked up against their will in China’s psychiatric institutions, according to a report released today by Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) titled The Darkest Corners: Abuses of Involuntary Psychiatric Commitment in China.
The report describes grim conditions and human-rights abuses in these institutions, where the patients have little hope of legal protection or redress. They are denied the right to make decisions regarding their own lives, such as medical treatment, admission, and discharge. Many are subjected to forced medical treatments, violence, and other forms of mistreatment, such as electric-shock therapy.
CHRD tells the story of Cheng Tianfu, who said he was subjected to electric shocks for refusing medication. In the report, he describes horrific treatment reminiscent of George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984:
“They inserted electric needles into both sides of my temples. After the power was connected, the doctor—while twisting the switch to increase the voltage—roared, ‘Don’t you dare refuse medication, don’t you dare refuse medication!’ I suddenly felt that my head was going to explode. An unspeakable pain engulfed my every nerve, every cell, and every bit of me was trembling fiercely! I stared angrily and clenched my teeth. The doctor stuffed my mouth with a stainless steel ruler wrapped in cloth to prevent me from biting my tongue off.”
“Those locked up for ‘mental disability’ are one of the most vulnerable groups in China,” said Renee Xia, international director of CHRD. “Not only are they deprived of their liberty on the basis of alleged disabilities; those who violate their rights face little legal oversight or accountability.”
The Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities, which China ratified in 2008, stipulates that “persons with disabilities enjoy legal capacity on an equal basis with others in all aspects of life.” However, the CHRD report said that when people with psychosocial disabilities are forcibly brought to many hospitals in China, staff ignore their will and objections, recognizing the committing party—usually family members, employers, police, or other state authorities—as the “guardians,” who are then allowed to authorize both the admittance as well as the discharge of the patient.
In July 2011, former psychiatric patient Chen Guoming carried out a protest in a Beijing park to raise awareness about China’s involuntary commitment system. Chen reenacted the experience of his family members binding him with tape and taking him against his will to a psychiatric hospital. The message on the ground reads “Anyone may be ‘made mentally ill’.” (CRLW)
According to one estimate, some 800,000 people are admitted to psychiatric hospitals in China each year, and an official at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention Center for Mental Health says that more than 99 percent of those treated for mental illnesses (including those involuntarily committed) have not gone through legal procedures regarding the appointment of guardians.
The authors of the CHRD study went on to say that the current system of psychiatric confinement is open to significant abuse.
“Those who have the means—power and money—to either compel or pay psychiatric hospitals to detain individuals out of a desire to punish, silence, or simply get rid of them have been able to do so with impunity,” said the report. “Although people who initiate a commitment usually allege that the prospective patient suffers from psychosocial disability, there are cases in which government officials bring a “patient” to a hospital, admit that the individual is not mentally ill, and the hospital commits them anyway.”
In practice, hospitals often admit patients taken there against their will simply on the basis of an allegation made by the police, other government officials, family members, or employers that the person might have a psychosocial disability, according to the report.
“It’s usually a mixture of the hospitals’ feeling compelled by the government, which has a lot of power, and because they receive money for incarceration,” says Wang Songlian, a CHRD research coordinator. “We know of cases where the nurses say to the patient, ‘I know you’re not ill, but I have to keep you here anyway.’”
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