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China's Psychiatric Mistreatment of Political Dissidents

Assertive Chinese face the risk of being locked up as insane.

Chua Chin Hon, Straits Times
Source: Chua Chin Hon, Straits Times

Last week, a troubling article on Chinese psychiatry and politics appeared in the New York Times. "Assertive Chinese Face the Risk of Being Locked Up as Insane" featured the case of Xu Lindong, a poor farmer from Henan province, central China, who sought to help a neighbor over a land dispute. According to his neighbor (Mrs. Zhang Guizhi), a meter-wide strip of land near her home was illegally appropriated by the local government and given to a wealthy neighbor.

As Mrs. Zhang is polio-ridden and unable to read, Xu Lindong decided to help her. He pressed her case a number of times, but she lost the case in court. He then tried to file a complaint against the local government, but was intercepted on the way to lodging that complaint. According to Times writers Sharon LaFraniere and Dan Levin, "The government's response was to draw up an order to commit him to a mental hospital—and then to forge his brother's name on the signature line." The British Medical Journal, which published an account of the arrest back in June (Xu was released in April), supplied additional details: "On the outskirts of Beijing he was intercepted by a Daliu township government official and a policeman, taken home, and subsequently incarcerated in Zhumadian Psychiatric Hospital, Henan, at the request of township and county government officials."

Having been diagnosed as mentally ill, Mr. Xu was detained for six and a half years. In Zhumadian Psychiatric Hospital and one other Chinese hospital, according to Times writers LaFraniere and Levin, he "endured 54 electric-shock treatments." He also was "repeatedly roped to his bed and . . . routinely injected with drugs powerful enough to make him swoon."

According to his brother, who spent four years trying to locate him, Mr. Xu was unrecognizable when he was finally traced in 2007. Just as distressing: Mr. Xu had "not [been] in the least bit deranged." What he had been, his brother insists, was persistent in helping his neighbor seek justice. He planned to file a complaint because he was angered by her mistreatment.

The political ramifications of people who are entirely sane being locked up because government authorities view them as nuisances isn't helped, or diminished, by a chief of forensic psychiatry at Peking University responding in this way to the case: "I have no doubt that at least 99 percent of China's pigheaded, persistent ‘professional petitioners' are mentally ill."

The psychiatrist in question, Dr. Sun Dongdong, quickly apologized, LaFraniere and Levin note, for what he said was an "inappropriate" remark. Inappropriate, but stated all the same—and to the New York Times, the British Observer, and several other major newspapers that reprinted the shocking story. The British Medical Journal titled its own news report, "China's Psychiatric Hospitals Collude with Officials to Stifle Dissent, Say Civil Rights' Groups."

In the New York Times article, Xu Lindong is pictured, desperately thin, after his six-and-a-half year ordeal. His brother and other siblings were "heartbroken" when they finally discovered him, only to find him barely recognizable. "My brother was as strong as a bull," his elder brother is quoted as saying. "Now he look[s] like a hospital patient."

Du Bin/New York Times
Source: Du Bin/New York Times

Two days after a local newspaper in China reported on the case, followed by China Youth Daily, a national publication, Mr. Xu was released. Four "local officials were fired," the Times authors add, including "the man who served as the county Communist Party secretary when Mr. Xu was committed."

Predictably or not, the comments section of the Times quickly lit up with angry charges after the report appeared. Readers defending China's rapid but uneven modernization flung criticisms and attacks at the record of American psychiatry, including its earlier use of lobotomy, its view (held as recently as 1973) that homosexuality was a mental disorder, and its troubling history of hospitalizing those inclined to dissent—as this blog noted in May, in an interview with Jonathan Metzl, author of the 2010 study Protest Psychosis: How Schizophrenia Became a Black Disease.

We also should not forget that the American Psychiatric Association formally agreed in 1980—and continues to argue in DSM-IV—that symptoms of "Oppositional Defiant Disorder" include being "negativistic," "unproductive," and "disobedient" (DSM-IV 313.81, page 91). Some U.S. readers therefore were quick to draw parallels, with one commenter (#7) writing: "Newsflash: There are plenty of ‘dysfunctional' people currently incarcerated against their wills in mental institutions and prisons [in the States]." "These same torture techniques and belittling of the will are practiced in the U.S.," added "Dee" (comment #115): "I'm not surprised China is doing them as well, and so is every other country in the world." "Check your mirrors, Great Gray Lady," "ca" also advised (#29).

But as "Aaron" in Boston, Mass., countered (#123): "The issue is that people who are essentially political prisoners are [being] sent to psychiatric hospitals [in China] as a type of ‘off the books' incarceration because they dared to disagree with the government. If you can find an example of this happening today in the U.S., feel free to post it."

Supporting Aaron's strong concern and outrage, the following post, "China to Stop Shock Therapy on Internet Addicts," appeared on this blog last July, based on an AP report that Linyi Mental Health Hospital in eastern Shandong province had administered electric-shock treatment to 3,000 Chinese supposedly suffering from internet addiction. An accompanying photo—originally published in Singapore's Straits Times—appears above.

"If you are Chinese," Gabriel commented in the more-recent Times article (#47), "they send you to a psych ward for protesting against the CCP [Chinese Communist Party]. If you are Tibetan, they send you straight to prison, generally following an electric cattle prod in your mouth, or they just execute you for ‘subversion.'" Alarming numbers of dissident Chinese do indeed regularly "disappear."

If China, one of our main trading partners, continues to treat its own dissenters in this way, with jailed Nobel Peace prize-winner Liu Xiaobo similarly rendered a political prisoner and China's own news services refusing to report news of his Nobel Prize, it indicates more than anything that China is not yet ready to assume the responsibility that comes with being a world leader. Before it can do so, it has to drop these Orwellian techniques and treat its political dissidents better. Surely that would include trying to heed their complaints rather than pathologizing and locking up those who dare to voice a contrary opinion. Follow me on Twitter @christophlane

Further reading:

Jonathan Mirsky, "China's Psychiatric Terror," New York Review of Books (February 27, 2003), reviewing Robin Munro's Dangerous Minds: Political Psychiatry in China Today and Its Origins in the Mao Era (2002).

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