Chinese Dissident Tells of Abuse in Asylum
They are known in Chinese as ankang, or “peace and health.” But former inmates describe the country’s police-run mental hospitals as decidedly less-than-serene places, with one recently freed political prisoner telling of sadistic nurses who performed electroshock therapy while other patients were forced to watch.
The unexpected August release and exile of political prisoner Wang Wanxing after 13 years in an asylum has shone a rare light on the communist regime’s use of psychiatry as a tool of repression.
In an extended telephone interview from Frankfurt, Germany, last week, the 56-year-old Wang said he saw a political prisoner die after being force-fed while on a hunger strike.
The facility in Beijing where he was treated also made frequent use of electrified acupuncture needles, he said, alternating between high and low dosages to keep patients off balance, and fed them powerful drugs that blunted their will to resist. Wang said he developed a technique for hiding the pills in his mouth and would spit them out afterward to avoid drowsiness and other side effects.
“Of course, I don’t consider myself crazy,” Wang said. “I don’t think they should put people in mental hospitals for political reasons. I think they did it to me because they didn’t want to send me to court, which would have brought a lot of international attention.”
Wang was picked up on the eve of the third anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown for unfurling a banner in the square that criticized the Communist Party and called on Beijing to reevaluate the event. “I’ve never regretted what I did in 1992,” he said. “If time were turned back, I’d do it again.”
According to records given to Germany when Wang was released, his diagnosis was paranoia. The documents indicate that he was sedated with Thorazine, an antipsychotic drug.
“When the topic of conversation turned to politics, he displayed impairments of thought association and of mental logic,” the report said, adding that he still had delusions, a desire to bring lawsuits and a strong will despite 13 years of treatment.
China has three broad categories of mental hospitals. Most are administered by the Health Ministry and offer the usual range of mental health services. Some patients are committed against their will by family members or in other civil cases.
A second group, overseen by China’s Civil Affairs Ministry, offers treatment for mentally ill indigents and transients picked up off the streets.
The most controversial, however, are the asylums built to incarcerate and treat mentally ill offenders. These facilities, the ankang, are run by the Public Security Bureau. All the doctors and nurses are bureau officials. There are 20 to 25 ankang facilities nationwide, and there are plans to build one in every Chinese city whose population exceeds 1 million.
New York-based Human Rights Watch has documented 3,000 cases of psychiatric punishment for political prisoners in China since the early 1980s. Wang’s statements could not be independently verified, but rights officials said his account seemed credible and consistent with published Chinese sources. Ankang administrators, the Health Ministry and the Chinese Society of Psychiatrists could not be reached for comment.
Wang was discharged from the ankang on Aug. 16, then immediately escorted to the airport for a flight to Germany, where his wife and daughter now live. Although he said the hospital staff threatened to find him and readmit him if he revealed his experiences, he decided to speak out in the hope that it would help spur reform of an unjust system.
Wang said many of the doctors and nurses were very nice to him, and without their kindness he would not have survived. But there were also sadists among them, he added, typically poorly educated nurses from rural areas. “Some enjoyed giving electrical shock therapy,” he said. “And they would require the other patients to watch.”
Wang said he spent the first seven years in a general ward. He was briefly released in 1999, but when he announced plans to hold a news conference for foreign journalists, he was sent back. For the final five years, he was put in a special ward with the most psychotically disturbed inmates, many of whom had committed homicides.
He recalled a patient named Huang Youliang who had registered repeated complaints of injustice against the government that landed him in the ankang several times.
Huang went on a hunger strike, Wang said, prompting the nurses to force-feed him. Normally this was done by inserting a tube through the patient’s nose and into the stomach.
But instead, he said, five people pinned Huang down and blocked his nose, forcing him to open his mouth, at which point they poured soup down his throat. He suffocated.
Wang attributes many of the abuses he reportedly witnessed to a system that lifted many checks on police power after Tiananmen in its zeal to impose order. Virtually all nations have criminal asylums to handle people such as John Hinckley Jr., who tried to assassinate President Reagan. But the police presence is usually limited to guarding the facility, not running it.
Using mental hospitals to house political detainees offers the regime several advantages, said Robin Monro, a human rights activist who wrote his doctoral dissertation on psychiatric abuse in China. It avoids the need for evidence that would be required in court, and it allows for a virtually unlimited sentence.
“It’s very convenient for them,” Monro said. “You have no rights because you’re deemed mentally ill. People just disappear into the system.”
Experts say dissidents accounted for a large proportion of the political prisoners sent to Chinese mental hospitals in the 1980s and 1990s. Devotees of the Falun Gong spiritual movement, banned as a cult by Beijing, were the next largest group. In recent years, particularly stubborn petitioners, citizens who complain or demand redress for illegal land seizures, local corruption or other injustices have made up the lion’s share.
China borrowed from the Soviet Union in using questionable psychiatry to repress its critics, said Robert van Voren, head of the Netherlands-based Global Initiative on Psychiatry.
A core assumption in the cases is that anyone who doesn’t support the regime must be insane. The Soviets were fond of using a “sluggish schizophrenia” diagnosis; China has relied on “paranoid psychosis,” “reformist delusions” and “litigation mania” labels against patients who, for instance, advocate democratic reform or file lawsuits against Communist Party officials.
Van Voren’s initiative has called on the World Psychiatric Assn. to condemn China’s abusive use of mental health institutions. At a 2002 meeting in Japan, the WPA urged Beijing to allow independent foreign psychiatrists to examine reported political prisoners and see whether they were mentally ill.
China canceled an investigative visit in 2004, but according to WPA documents it invited a delegation for an “educational visit” early this year during which the Chinese Society of Psychiatrists gave “every assurance that their members had not been involved in any systematic political misuse of psychiatry.” CSP officials could not be reached.
Critics blame the West for not pushing Beijing harder.
“Many Western countries don’t want to anger China. They have too many economic interests at stake,” Van Voren said. “The key issue for us is that doctors who took a Hippocratic oath are using their power to hurt people rather than help people.”
Other Chinese subjected to the ankang system have spoken out, but Wang appears to be among the few whom Beijing has allowed to leave the country after their release.
The Global Initiative is planning to have him independently diagnosed to test China’s claims that its practices are on the level.
Qiu Jinyou, 48, said he spent seven months in the Hangzhou ankang in 1997 and 1998 after mounting a campaign to fight corruption in his village. “They did so many horrible things to me. They used electrical shocks and heated iron to burn my chest and back. They forced me to take drugs that destroyed my brain and my liver. I almost died. I would shake violently and lose consciousness every time.”
Qiu said these “torture sessions” would take place two or three times a week. There was little pretext of an illness or diagnosis, he said. Only the thought that his young son might grow up without a father kept him going, he said.
“I was really afraid I was going to die in the hospital,” Qiu said. “The Communist Party is so bad. It’s more bandit than the bandits. China often talks about the Japanese invasion, but the government has invaded into people’s lives.”
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