China's new mental health law does little to protect patients or end a long-running practice that enables the government to silence dissidents by deeming them mentally ill, rights groups and former mental health detainees said.
The law was passed by the standing committee of the country's parliament, the National People's Congress (NPC), during its session last week, official media reported.
The legislation requires institutions to protect the personal information of mentally ill patients and bans involuntary mental health examinations and inpatient treatment except in cases in which patients express an intent to harm themselves or others, according to the state-owned Xinhua news agency.
But the overseas-based China Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) group said the law "falls short of providing meaningful legal protections" for those sent for treatment in psychiatric facilities.
"For those who are involuntarily committed to psychiatric institutions by relatives, police or government officials, the law fails to close loopholes for these agents to abuse the system," the group said in an emailed statement on Monday.
Chinese psychiatric patients are routinely subjected to abuse of their rights in a system that makes scant distinction between different kinds of mental illness, CHRD has said in a recent report.
Meanwhile, reports have become widespread in recent years of the incarceration of rights activists and petitioners in psychiatric institutions for political reasons.
Wang Yonglan, a petitioner who tried to file a complaint against officials in her hometown of Chongshan in the eastern province of Jiangxi, had been locked up in the Hougang Psychiatric Hospital near Leshan city "numerous times" during the course of this year, according to her close friend Yu Ganlin.
"While she was in the mental hospital, they force-fed her with drugs," Yu, a fellow petitioner from Hubei province, said in an interview on Wednesday.
"If she refused to take the drugs, they would force her mouth open and pour them down her throat," Yu said. "This made her very sick, and she told me that it would be better to die than to live like that."
Yu said she too had been incarcerated in a psychiatric institution by local authorities, after she tried to expose official corruption.
"They beat me up until I sustained internal organ damage," she said. "My kidneys and liver were both damaged by these beatings."
"They kidnapped me and locked me up in a mental hospital in 2009," Yu said. "They gave me electroshock therapy and medication."
"There was a psychotic patient there who grabbed hold of my neck and wouldn't let go," she said.
"Once you're inside, there are only two ways out; escape or death, so I escaped," Yu said. "I'm only here today because I risked my life to escape."
Citing a Shenzhen-based rights group, CHRD said that far too much power was still given to the "guardians" of a person—who could include the police, or their own relatives—to decide their fate, once they were under psychiatric care.
"It is not feasible for those committed to institutions to exercise their rights, which the law nominally grants, to appeal to judicial authorities for review," the group said.
The Shenzhen-based mental health advocacy group, Equity & Justice Initiative (EJI), agreed that the new law, which takes effect in May 2013, would not adequately protect the rights of those in mental health institutions.
One provision requires guardians—which can refer to relatives or the police—to agree to take responsibility for physical harm or damage to property caused by a person if they refuse to commit them, the EJI said.
Guardians, including the police, could still have a person committed to an institution even if medical staff thought this unnecessary, it said.
The law also made no provision for those committed to mental institutions to authorize someone outside the hospital to lodge appeals on their behalf, making it impossible for them to exercise this right, CHRD said.
However, the new law was a step in the right direction, it said.
"For the first time [it] stipulates that those with psychiatric conditions who are unlikely to cause harm to themselves or others should not be locked up in psychiatric institutions against their will," the group said.
"It grants medical professionals more [though not enough] authority in making decisions about forcible commitment to psychiatric institutions."
According to estimates from China’s health ministry, more than 100 million people suffer from psychiatric conditions in China—16 million of them with severe conditions.
However, most receive no mental health treatment whatsoever.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.