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Originally published Saturday, March 31, 2012 at 6:00 AM

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China uses mental hospitals to silence dissent

Chinese authorities commonly resort to forced psychiatric hospitalization if someone is considered a troublemaker but hasn't committed a crime. Now, for the first time, Chinese lawmakers have drafted a law spelling out when people can be confined to psychiatric hospitals against their will.

Los Angeles Times

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BEIJING — The hardest thing about being imprisoned in a psychiatric hospital is keeping your sanity.

Li Jinping, 47, knows. The political activist spent seven months in Beijing's Chaoyang 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 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's equivalent of a Cabinet, gives patients and their relatives 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 in March, 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 hospitalization, which he said are a fraction 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.

A tool of repression

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 remains tainted by its image as a tool of repression.

Nowadays, most of those confined against their will are so-called petitioners. (Instead of lawsuits, Chinese bring petitions to higher authorities in Beijing to contest injustices in their hometowns.)

Hu Guohong, 46, who was petitioning for compensation from the factory where had worked, has been confined twice to psychiatric hospitals in the city of Wuhan.

He said he was told he had "paranoid delusions" and was treated with electric needles inserted in his temples, between his thumb and forefinger and on the soles of his feet.

"When they shocked me, I was tied to the bed and the whole thing would shake as badly as a washing machine for two hours. My teeth were rattling," Hu said. "There was no medical theory behind it. They are doing it to torture us.

"The chief of police told me, 'If you're not crazy now, we'll make you crazy.' "

Yu Xin, a psychiatry professor at Peking University, said psychiatrists are often caught in the middle of these cases, unwilling or unable to challenge the police.

"The misuse of psychiatry takes away resources from the patients who really need the help," said Yu, who was among those pushing for the new legislation.

"I think the right legislation and procedures can protect mental-health professionals as well as mentally ill patients. But we also have to do a lot of work educating professionals on ethical issues."

Treated with contempt

At the Chaoyang Mental Health Center, doctors treated him with contempt, said Li Jinping, who was an accidental activist, a salt-of-the-earth type the Chinese like to call laobaixing, basically "common people."

A broad-shouldered man with a build like a boxer and spiky black hair, Li held various jobs — working at his family's tree nursery, serving as a traffic cop — until the late 1990s, when he started to do errands and fix things around the house for purged Communist Party chief Zhao Ziyang.

Zhao had been under house arrest since showing sympathy for the pro-democracy demonstrations at Tiananmen Square in 1989.

When Zhao died in 2005 and the Chinese government tried to block public mourning ceremonies, Li hired Buddhist monks to do ritual chanting at his own home and invited journalists.

"The journalists didn't show up — only the police," Li said.

That began years of confrontation with authorities. Li was arrested repeatedly, his house and tree nursery demolished. He nevertheless persisted, starting a letter-writing campaign to have Zhao posthumously rehabilitated.

On Oct. 8, 2010, the day imprisoned writer Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, Li was rounded up with other activists whom police were detaining out of fear they would go out and celebrate.

Again, he was pressed to drop his activism.

"Stop saying Zhao was innocent," he says the police told him. After a few weeks, Li was transferred to the psychiatric hospital.

How he got out

"When I first saw the hospital, there were tears in my eyes, but I knew I had to suppress my emotions," he said.

Li was sufficiently passive to eventually be allowed to mingle with other patients and their visitors. He sidled up to the father of a patient and asked him to telephone his brother. When the brother showed up, the hospital claimed there was no patient by the name Li Jinping.

The brother came back another day with a photograph from Li's driver's license that he showed to a nurse, who recognized Li.

How the next part was arranged, Li won't say — for fear of getting others in trouble — but he and his brother picked a time that Li would stand at his third-floor window, visible from a market around the corner from the hospital. And a photographer with a long lens captured a photograph of Li in the window with a hand-lettered sign:

"This is a living hell. Hurry up! Help me! I'm desperate!"

Once the photograph was published, the hospital was forced to acknowledge Li's presence. He was released shortly afterward.

Ma Liang, deputy director of the Chaoyang Mental Health Center, whom Li identified as the psychiatrist in charge, would not comment on Li's case on the grounds of patient confidentiality.

"Foreigners, I know, have a different view of human rights from our own," Ma said when asked about the hospital's relationship with the police. "Abroad, patients might be able to refuse medical treatment, but that is not the case in China."

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