A petitioner from the eastern Chinese province of Zhejiang is under house arrest after being locked up against her will in a psychiatric ward for trying to sue a hospital over medical malpractice, activists said this week.
Zhong Yafang was held at Hangzhou Ankang Hospital on Dec. 9 and only released after she threatened to protest to her death, according to Wang Wanxing, founder of the Germany-based European Working Group on Mental Health in China.
"She is currently under a 24-hour guard of six social workers at her home, and she is not allowed to carry out any petitioning with the outside world," Wang said. "Her years of pursuing a complaint against medical malpractice have left her tens of thousands of yuan in debt."
Wang said Zhong's case has highlighted the widespread use of psychiatric institutions by the government as a means to silence those who complain too loudly about official wrongdoing.
Wang was himself incarcerated in a mental hospital for 13 years by the authorities after he called on the government to overturn its official verdict on the 1989 student-led pro-democracy movement in Tiananmen Square.
Diagnosed with "paranoia" and "political monomania" after he unfurled a banner on Tiananmen Square on the third anniversary of the June 4 massacre, Wang was released into exile in Germany following pressure from the international community.
Like Zhong, Wang was also held in an "Ankang" police-backed mental hospital, which exist all over China, and described widespread abuses during his time there, including living alongside patients with violent psychotic disturbances and being force-fed psychoactive drugs.
On his arrival in Germany, Wang was found by two psychiatrists not to be suffering from any mental disorder that could justify admission into a psychiatric hospital.
Zhong, 44, first began petitioning after she was administered radioactive preparations by mistake at the No. 1 Medical College attached to Zhejiang University Hospital in 2006.
Wuhan-based veteran pro-democracy activist Qin Yongmin has also called for international pressure over her detention.
"Qin Yongmin is someone who has been a prisoner of conscience for a very long time in China," Wang said. "He emailed the European Working Group on Mental Health in China after Zhong contacted him begging for help."
"He wanted us to bring Zhong Yafang's case to the attention of the international community," he said.
In October, China's parliament debated a bill outlawing the incarceration of the non-mentally ill in psychiatric hospitals, a tacit admission that similar tactics have been employed by local officials and police in a number of Chinese cities and provinces to silence petitioners and rights activists.
Officials and Chinese media have acknowledged the phenomenon, which is known satirically as "being mentally-illed" by netizens.
Official Chinese media have described Chinese psychiatry as a "medical backwater," saying that the country only has 16,383 psychotherapists and counselors to treat an estimated 16 million mental health patients.
The bill, if passed, will eventually replace the 1985 Mental Health Law, which has been widely criticized for giving wide-ranging powers to hospitals and doctors while de-emphasizing their duty of care to patients and responsibilities under the law.
In an October 2010 report on the legality of admissions to psychiatric facilities in China, Shenzhen-based rights lawyer Huang Xuetao wrote that in the majority of cases where people were committed to mental hospitals when they have no mental illness, there is a clear interest in keeping them locked up.
The hospitals accept such patients because this earns them money, Huang said.
Wang said the use of psychiatric incarceration meant that China no longer had a system that was capable of enforcing its own laws and protecting the health and safety of its citizens.
Reported by Tian Yi for RFA's Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.