HONG KONG—Chinese citizens trying to pursue long-running complaints against the government can find themselves committed to psychiatric hospitals and force-fed medication to stop them from "causing trouble," according to officials and petitioners.
"I wasn't the only one. There were about a dozen others locked up in there," Tianjin-based petitioner Li Shuchun, 66, said.
"There was one time when I got very angry and started to curse them. The nurse told me it was no use, that I wasn't the only person locked up in there [for petitioning]. What she said indicates a much bigger problem," Li added.
"This was much worse than jail, because at least there they don't force you to take medication if there's nothing wrong with you."
Further north, in China's former industrial heartland, the family of "diehard" petitioner Wang Taihe said he had been held in a psychiatric hospital in Wafangdian city, near Dalian, since he was brought back by local officials after trying to protest during the Olympic Games in Beijing.
The last time wasn't too bad because they didn't force-feed me medication."
Tianjin-based petitioner Li Shuchun
"They told us they'd taken him to the psychiatric hospital, but when we went there we weren't allowed to see him," Wang Taihe's sister said.
"We were told that this was a government action, and that we'd have to get police permission before we'd be allowed to see him. After that, we got an officer from the Xinhua police station to take us to see him."
"When I saw him, I asked my brother how he came to be taken to a psychiatric hospital. He said there was nothing he could do. He was taken there at gunpoint and force-fed medication," she said.
A police officer surnamed Gao at the Xinhua police station in Wafangdian called such practices an "open secret."
"We call people like Wang Taihe 'old diehards,'" Gao said. "He continued to cause trouble after he was brought back from Beijing during the Olympics, waving placards outside the municipal government and so on. He was having a bad effect on society."
"So the complaints office and the police put their heads together and arranged for him to be treated as a psychiatric case, and had him legally committed to a psychiatric hospital. They have documents to say that he has a mental illness," Gao said.
"Also, he has committed the crime of disturbing public order, waving banners outside the government buildings and attracting onlookers of at least a hundred people. He was in an unstable mental condition at that time anyway, and we were afraid he would do something to harm social stability."
Gao said Wang's hospital expenses were being shared by the police, the neighborhood committee, and the complaints office of the municipal government. "Now the hospital says there's not much more they can do to help him. If he's been cured, then they can't see it. He wasn't very sick anyway," Gao said.
Wang's sister said she had received a call Monday to go to the hospital and collect her brother. But she vowed to complain about his treatment through official channels.
"They told me today to go and get him ... They used false documents and all their actions were illegal," she said. "You shouldn't even treat dogs and cats like this."
Tianjin-based petitioner Li said she had been sent to a psychiatric unit once before, after petitioning outside the 17th Party Congress in Beijing last year.
Then she went to Beijing in July to continue her complaint about the forced demolition of her home and was removed from the city by complaints officials from Tianjin.
Forced to take medication
Li said she was told she would have to attend study sessions. But when she refused to give up her petition, she was beaten by three government officials with sticks, then taken to a psychiatric hospital where she was held for more than three months.
Inside the hospital were around a dozen other petitioners, all of them held as patients against their will, Li said. All were force-fed medication.
Li was finally released under considerable pressure from her relatives.
But others, who were less fortunate and had no family to make a fuss, were still there, she said, citing the case of Du Yu'e, who had been held in the hospital for eight months. A former journalist at the Tianjin Youth Daily newspaper had been in there for five years, she said.
"Du Yu'e now has trembling in her arms and all over her body," Li said.
"She had a very severe reaction to the treatment. They beat you and they force-feed you with medication. Then you get sedated, and you have no energy. That way you can't cause trouble. Their aim was to precipitate my mental collapse so that I wouldn't carry on complaining about them."
Li said she had been better treated in the first psychiatric hospital, in 2007.
"The last time wasn't too bad because they didn't force-feed me medication. They behaved quite responsibly towards me. But this hospital is a police hospital, and once the police have taken you there, you can't get out again until the same police officer gives the nod."
Some remain behind
An employee who answered the phone at the Tianjin Ankang Hospital confirmed the identity of a patient called Du Yu'e. "She won't be allowed to leave without the approval of the hospital," the staff member said.
The allegations come hard on the heels of unprecedented revelations, first reported in the New Beijing News last week, about the way in which China deals with those who tenaciously pursue grievances against the government.
The newspaper reported that 57-year-old Sun Fawu had spent years trying to obtain compensation for houses and farmlands lost to the coal-mining industry in his village, with no result other than forced committal to the Xintai Psychiatric Hospital in Beijing on two separate occasions.
An employee who answered the phone at the Xintai Psychiatric Hospital said they were unable to give interviews over the telephone.
Calls to the Xintai municipal complaints office went unanswered during office hours Wednesday.
Original reporting in Cantonese by Lillian Cheung and in Mandarin by Ding Xiao. Cantonese service director: Shiny Li. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Translated and written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.