HONG KONG—Chinese psychiatric hospitals face mounting pressure to accept “patients” with no demonstrable mental illness from government officials keen to find ways to silence people who complain about them, doctors and lawyers said.
“It’s not just one or two isolated cases,” said Xu Yonghai, formerly a psychiatrist at the Beijing Psychiatric Hospital. “This is a very common phenomenon.”
He was speaking after authorities in the central province of Henan announced they would sack five local officials after they sent 59-year-old petitioner Xu Lindong to a mental institution for 6-1/2 years based on forged documents.
“As a doctor, it’s possible to get the diagnosis wrong, because that happens in any society,” Xu Yonghai said.
“But for a doctor in China, there is another phenomenon, which is interference from the government.”
“They might be pretty sure that there’s no mental illness, but do it to solve a security problem. So for example petitioners or people in property disputes with their families can get taken to a mental hospital,” he said.
“This isn’t a good thing. Does it exist? Yes, it definitely does.”
Xu Lindong, of Daliu township in Henan’s Luohe city, was incarcerated in the Madian Municipal Psychiatric Hospital after he tried to take the complaints of his disabled neighbor, Zhang Guizhi, to a higher level, according to official media reports that first broke in the cutting-edge Southern Metropolis News.
Xu was then transferred to the Luohe City Psychiatric Hospital.
He was held against his will for a total of 6-1/2 years, was put under physical restraints 50 times, and tortured with electric batons 55 times, the reports said.
In an interview, Xu confirmed the accounts of his treatment. "It was barely tolerable," he said.
"I couldn't sleep or eat. I felt it was better to die than to live, and tried to kill myself. [But] when I thought I might not see my family again, I became stronger."
"You have to be strong in such a place," he said.
News of Xu's torture and incarceration has now been widely reported on Chinese Internet news sites and on television.
Chang Boyang, Xu's lawyer, said that Xu was released because of pressure resulting from media coverage of his case.
"We have not filed a case in court yet. We want to see if the authorities will investigate the [sacked] officials' criminal responsibility and prosecute them for the infringement of Xu's physical freedom."
The mayor of Daliu township, surnamed Wang, said he is aware of the situation and has sent money and gifts to Xu to aid his recovery.
“He is living a very good life now. A local official told me so,” said Wang, adding that he wasn’t in office at the time of Xu Lindong’s detention.
“We are working to help his recovery. Both the mayor and Party secretary have sent him gifts and money.”
Officials let go
He confirmed official media reports that Daliu deputy Party secretary Yang Yaoqin and four other district officials had been fired for abuse of official power and for the forgery of documents needed to commit Xu to the mental institution.
“That is the punishment delivered by the district government,” Wang said.
“They will definitely lose their jobs. The punishment won’t be any joke.”
Asked if the officials would face criminal prosecution, Wang said, “That’s for the law to decide.”
Zhan Jiang, professor of international news at the Beijing Foreign Studies University, said the media reporting of Xu Lindong’s treatment has raised the ante.
“Once you have a free flow of information, then the pressure really grows on government officials,” Zhan said.
“When such an ugly business gets hidden and then comes to light, it sparks a lot of public anger.”
The sackings come after a similar case in the central province of Hubei earlier this month.
Petitioners Peng Baoquan and Deng Xiahua were committed to the Maojian District Psychiatric Hospital in Shiyan city after they tried to film a protest outside the gates of a local chemical company.
They were released after the media reported their whereabouts.
Beijing-based civil rights lawyer Li Fangping said local authorities across China are increasingly using “mental illness” as an excuse to lock up people who tried to complain about them to higher levels of government.
Meanwhile, Guangzhou-based civil rights lawyer Liu Shihui said he had represented petitioners in another case in Shiyan city, where two sisters surnamed Jin were released from a psychiatric hospital only last week.
“The older sister ... said she had been beaten and injected with drugs,” Liu said.
“The younger sister ... said she was beaten nearly to death. This was on Dec. 14 last year, when Jin Hanqin was beaten by doctors in the psychiatric hospital, and then given five successive injections of drugs, which left her unable to see anything much at all.”
He said the Jin sisters denied having gone to complain about local officials in Beijing, and that the authorities had made a mistake.
They were locked up in the mental institution for more than seven months, he added.
Guangdong-based civil rights lawyer Tang Jingling said reports of such cases do seem to be on the increase.
“We have seen quite a few of these cases come to light recently,” Tang said.
“Someone is taken to a psychiatric institution, locked up and stripped of their ability to act on their own behalf, whether by individuals, organizations, or even government departments.”
Original reporting in Mandarin by Qiao Long and Shi Shan, and in Cantonese by Feng Renyao and Bi Zimuk. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Cantonese service director: Shiny Li. Translated and written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.