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Groups Condemn Use of Psychiatry as a Political Tool

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Times Staff Writer

A psychiatric examination performed on a former patient held for 13 years in a police-run Chinese mental hospital has concluded that there was no cause for his detention, human rights groups said Thursday in condemning Beijing’s political abuse of psychiatry.

Dutch psychiatrists who tested Wang Wanxing, 56, over a two-day period early this year found nothing wrong with him after he was released from a type of mental institution known in Chinese as ankang, or “peace and health,” according to the Netherlands-based Global Initiative on Psychiatry, a civic group that was the sponsor of the exam.

“There was no reason that Mr. Wang had to be locked up in a special forensic psychiatric hospital or to be admitted to any psychiatric hospital,” the examining physicians said in their report. “We were not able to reveal any form of mental disorder.”

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The physicians are B.C.M. Raes, professor of forensic psychiatry at the Free University of Amsterdam, and B.B. van der Meer, a clinical psychiatrist.

Wang was picked up by police in 1992, on the eve of the third anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, for unfurling a banner in the square that was critical of the Communist Party and called on Beijing to reevaluate the event. His release last year from the mental facility provided a rare peek at the communist regime’s use of psychiatry as a tool of repression.

“I received a diagnosis that I was absolutely healthy,” Wang said in a telephone interview Thursday from Germany, where he lives with his wife and daughter. “I was labeled insane for political reasons.”

Wang said he planned to file a lawsuit and was looking for a Chinese attorney to handle the case. He also said he intended to write a book about his experience.

Wang added that he was pleased that the exam had vindicated him.

“In China, doing an independent psychiatric examination would never happen,” he said. “They’d never allow it.”

Human rights groups said the case was part of a broader pattern in China.

“It’s another instance of abuse of people who speak out against the government, for whatever reason,” said Mickey Spiegel, Asia officer with New York-based Human Rights Watch. “They silence critics and find various ways of punishing them.”

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Wang described what he saw while in the ankang in an interview shortly after his release. He told of a sadistic nurse who performed electroshock therapy while forcing other patients to watch, and a political prisoner who died after being force-fed while on a hunger strike.

Human rights groups and former prisoners say that the vast majority of ankang inmates are people with genuine mental disorders who commit crimes and that political cases make up a small minority.

Human Rights Watch has documented 3,000 cases of psychiatric punishment for political prisoners in China since the early 1980s.

Robert van Voren, head of the Global Initiative on Psychiatry, said he hoped Wang’s case and the doctors’ report would persuade national psychiatrist groups, especially professional associations in Britain, the U.S., Canada and the Netherlands, to condemn Chinese abuses.

“For a repressive regime like China, there’s no need to use psychiatry as one of their tools,” Van Voren said. “It’s easier for them to give it up. They already have what is essentially a nationwide gulag.”

Chinese records provided to Germany when Wang was released last year listed his diagnosis as paranoia and indicated 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 Chinese report says.

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Wang said this week that he believed China was changing tactics as word leaked out about its use of ankang to house political prisoners, an embarrassment to the regime.

Nowadays, he said, authorities appear to be putting more political prisoners and critics into civilian mental institutions in the hope that it will be less obvious.

Officials in the ankang system and China’s psychiatric association could not be reached for comment.

“They thought they could quietly put me away,” Wang said. “But they must feel they made a mistake -- it actually attracted more attention.”

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