Mental Hospitals 'Abuse Rights'

China's psychiatric system locks up hundreds of thousands against their will, a new report by a rights group says.

china-psychiatric-305 A file photo of a patient suffering from mental illness receiving a transfusion with bound feet at a psychiatric hospital in Fuzhou.
EyePress News

Chinese psychiatric patients are routinely subjected to abuse of their rights in a system that makes scant distinction between different kinds of mental illness, an overseas-based human rights group said in a recent report.

While reports have become more widespread in recent years of the incarceration of rights activists and petitioners in psychiatric institutions for political reasons, genuine mental health patients are also highly vulnerable to abuses under the current system, the China Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) group said in a report.

"Every year, hundreds of thousands of people are locked up against their will in China’s psychiatric hospitals because they have, or are alleged to have, psychosocial disabilities," the report said.

The report, titled "The Darkest Corners," details the grim conditions and human rights abuses faced by people who are committed to psychiatric care against their will, even if they do not pose a demonstrable threat of harm to themselves or to others.

"[Such individuals] are denied the right to make decisions regarding their own fate, including admission, discharge, and treatment," CHRD said in an e-mailed statement. "Forced medical treatment, violence, and mistreatment occur frequently."


It said psychiatric care facilities frequently restrict or prevent patients from communicating with the outside world, including their relatives and lawyers, and assume that patients' relatives have the right to direct their treatment, even if the person is still quite capable of thinking for themselves.

"When people with psychosocial disabilities are forcibly brought to the hospital, hospital staff disregards their will and objections," CHRD said.

Family members, employers, police, or other state authorities are allowed without question to authorize both the admittance as well as the discharge of a committed patient, it said.

"This guardianship is established despite the fact that Chinese law stipulates that only after a citizen has been declared legally incompetent by a court can a guardian act on behalf of that citizen."

Under the Chinese mental health system, patients have no right to independent reviews upon admission or during their time in psychiatric hospitals, and the judicial system is unwilling to handle cases brought by former psychiatric patients.

"Those locked up for ‘mental illnesses’ are one of the most vulnerable groups in China," said CHRD international direct Renee Xia.

"Not only are they deprived of their liberty on the basis of alleged disabilities; those who violate their rights also face little legal oversight or accountability," she said.

Cheng Tianfu

The report cited the case of Fujian website editor Cheng Tianfu, who was reportedly kidnapped by a group of psychiatric healthcare workers in a van in January, 2008, while on his way to the train station to catch a train to Beijing.

Cheng had been battling depression since 2005, and his wife called on the hospital to capture him after he told her he was going to Beijing to visit a female friend, it said.

"During his one-month detention in the hospital, Cheng was subjected to electric shocks and forcibly medicated," CHRD said. "Only when Cheng’s family consented to his discharge was he allowed to leave the hospital."

According to Article 14 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, disability-based detention is prohibited as a human rights violation.

China ratified the Convention in 2008, and the U.N. will assess its compliance next month, CHRD said.

"We urge the Committee to call on the Chinese government to take immediate steps to abolish the involuntary commitment of people with psychosocial disabilities," the group said.


China's rapid economic growth and deepening social inequalities are ramping up stress across the population, with urban white-collar workers, high-flyers, and young people all seeking psychological help in unprecedented numbers, mental health professionals say.

The ruling Chinese Communist Party has traditionally regarded the psychological profession as an imported form of Western-influenced bourgeois decadence.

Even the medically-based psychiatric profession was virtually nonexistent until well after the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) had ended, and psychologists were almost unheard of until about a decade ago.

Meanwhile, Wang Wanxing, founder of the Germany-based European Working Group on Mental Health in China, 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 an "ankang" police-backed mental hospital, which exist all over China, 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 in Tiananmen Square on the third anniversary of the June 4 bloody crackdown, Wang 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.

Reported by Luisetta Mudie.


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