As China's parliament debates a bill outlawing the incarceration of the non-mentally ill in psychiatric hospitals, a rights group in Germany described the cases of two 'patients' wrongly detained in Chinese mental institutions.
The Germany-based European Working Group on Mental Health in China said it has received a number of recent reports from inside China in recent weeks in which people who were not mentally ill were locked up in psychiatric hospitals.
The 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.
"Recently we have received a number of reports like this," said the working group's spokeswoman Yang Zhimin. "For example, there is a rights activist called Li Jiafu in Zhejiang province, who has frequently been picked up and declared to be a psychiatric patient."
"Another case is that of a writer from Sichuan called Wang Sen, who has also been locked up in a psychiatric hospital," Yang said.
She said Wang had been detained as a mental health patient because of his links to outspoken Sichuan-based rights activist Huang Qi, with whom he had served time in prison for political activities.
"He was locked up for three months in a mental hospital because he was courageous enough to be concerned for the welfare of a fellow prisoner while he was himself a prisoner," Li said. "According to their logic, he must be mad."
Chinese health minister Chen Zhu said on Monday that only qualified psychological practitioners should be allowed to determine whether or not a person was mentally ill.
"The major concern of the draft law is to ensure the legal rights of people with mental illnesses," Chen was quoted by the official China Daily newspaper as saying.
"There are some who are healthy but who are illegally detained as 'mentally ill' for their actions," the paper said.
"This mindset leads to abuses."
The paper also described Chinese psychiatry as a "medical backwater," saying that the country still only has 16,383 psychotherapists and counselors to treat an estimated 16 million mental health patients.
Lu Jun, a director for the Beijing-based health charity Yirenping, said the bill will eventually replace the 1985 Mental Health Law, which has been widely criticized as inadequate.
"The previous law gave wide-ranging powers to hospitals and doctors while de-emphasising their duty of care [to patients] and responsibilities under the law," Lu said.
"Nongovernment groups, ordinary citizens, lawyers, and rights activists have all challenged and criticized the existing mental health legislation."
He said the chorus of criticism had prompted the current debate and the prospective new legislation.
However, he added that the proposed changes to protect the non-mentally ill from committal to psychiatric units don't go far enough.
"Yes, it's a step forward in the sense that they've added the requirement of a second opinion for diagnosis," Lu said.
"But actually the initial diagnosis and the second opinion will come from the same bunch of people in many places in China."
Last October, a Chinese rights group began a campaign 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 shock, in a bid to silence them.
And 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.
Reported by He Ping and Tian Yi for RFA's Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.