China's new mental health law is unlikely to offer much protection to people facing incarceration in psychiatric units for political reasons, rights lawyers and former inmates said on Thursday.
The law, which came into effect on May 1, aims to protect citizens from committal to psychiatric institutions, except in extreme cases where the person is at risk of harming themselves or others.
Shenzhen-based rights lawyer Huang Xuetao, the author of a groundbreaking 2010 report on psychiatric incarcerations, said the law does confer greater rights on mental health service users.
"Under the new law, mental health patients have to satisfy the conditions of serious mental illness, to undergo two independent diagnoses, and to have the results reviewed by residential directors and clinical psychiatrists." Huang said.
"This is a big improvement for the process of involuntary committal," she said.
But those who have already been victims of political incarceration in mental institutions fear that the law will be ignored by local officials when it suits them.
Rights groups have long campaigned against the aggressive use by the authorities of mental health diagnoses to send for psychiatric treatment people who are regarded as troublemakers because they complain about the government —a practice that has gained common parlance in Chinese media as "being mentally-illed."
"What the authorities do and what they say are two completely different things," said Wuhan petitioner Hu Guohong, who was locked up five times in a psychiatric unit over the course of two decades, and subjected to torture and degrading treatment while inside.
"I have tried to sue them several times over 'being mentally-illed,' but it has just resulted in my being detained," Hu said.
"This problem will never be resolved for as long as those corrupt officials are still in their posts."
Aimed at protecting mental health service users from misdiagnosis and involuntary medical treatment in China's state-run psychiatric hospitals, the mental health law is the first in the country to define the concept and procedures linked to compulsory committal.
Reaction to the new law has been mixed, even among China's tightly controlled state media.
The cutting-edge Southern Metropolis Daily newspaper said this week that the guardians of people allegedly suffering from mental health problems are still given too much power.
The paper said in a commentary that it doubts whether the law will put an end to arbitrary and political diagnoses.
The founder of the U.S.-based group Human Rights in China, Liu Qing, said that the law looks good enough on paper to minimize the use of psychiatric hospitals as private prisons by local governments.
"But what really worries us is that there is a huge problem in China that laws exist, but aren't implemented," Liu said.
"The Communist Party interprets and uses all laws according to its own whim," he said. "This means that people will continue to be locked up in psychiatric institutions."
"The new law says that all diagnoses must be approved by a doctor, but the doctors won't stand up to the police or the prosecution," he said.
"As soon as they issue an order telling the doctor what to write, that's what the doctor will write," Liu added. "Then the police or the procuratorate will be able to say that they have complied with the law."
Rule of law
Xu Wu, a former worker at state-owned Wuhan Iron and Steel who escaped from a psychiatric institution in 2011 after being sent there by the authorities, said the law doesn't go far enough to protect those considered troublemakers by the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
"This law could only be implemented under a democratic system," Xu said in an interview on Thursday. "Under the Chinese Communist Party, where might is stronger than the law, it will be hard for it to have an effect."
"Corrupt officials use their power to suppress our voices."
Chinese rights groups have campaigned for the release of petitioners—ordinary Chinese who complain about alleged official wrongdoing—from psychiatric hospitals, where they are routinely detained and given forcible "treatment," including electric shocks, in a bid to silence them.
Xu, who was locked up for nearly four years in the Wugang No. 2 Psychiatric Hospital, said he was force-fed medication and tortured while inside.
"My days in the hospital were inhuman," he said. "They force-feed you medications and injections every day, even though there is nothing wrong with you."
"They also tie you to the bed, and if you resist, they beat you up and give you electric shocks...to this day, my memory is pretty poor, and my body is very weak," Xu said.
Reported by Fung Yat-yiu for RFA's Cantonese Service and by Xi Wang for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.