During the Cultural Revolution, the genuinely mentally ill were routinely "treated" with political re-education, and healthy people who did not hew to the prevailing political line were often imprisoned in psychiatric hospitals. Such abuses diminished as China became more open and psychiatry became more professional and scientific.
Today, however, the abuse of psychiatry once again appears to be increasing in China. The government has forcibly imprisoned members of Falun Gong in psychiatric hospitals. Falun Gong, a popular movement that advocates channeling energy through deep breathing and exercises, has been the target of a heavy-handed government crackdown marked with abuses reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution, among them the misuse of psychiatry.
Movement leaders claim that some 600 members have been forcibly detained in mental hospitals. This number is impossible to verify, but journalists and human rights researchers have documented numerous cases of Falun Gong members being taken to psychiatric institutions and drugged, physically restrained, isolated or given electric shocks.
Robin Munro, a senior researcher at the University of London, explores some of these cases in an article published last month in The Columbia Journal of Asian Law. Mr. Munro, who has also worked for Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch investigating abuses in China, estimates that at least 3,000 people have been sent to mental hospitals for expressing political views in the past two decades, not including Falun Gong members.
Another alarming development is the network of new police psychiatric hospitals called Ankangs, which means "peace and happiness" built since 1987. Chinese law includes "political harm to society" as legally dangerous mentally ill behavior. Police are instructed to take into psychiatric custody "political maniacs," defined as people who make anti-government speeches, write reactionary letters or "express opinions on important domestic and international affairs." Erik Eckholm of The Times has reported that at least one labor leader was detained and given shock therapy in a psychiatric hospital. There are currently 20 Ankangs, and the government plans to build many more.
An international gathering of psychiatrists, which investigated similar abuses in the Soviet Union, is trying to publicize China's practices and organize an investigation by members of the World Psychiatric Association.
Psychiatric imprisonment is not a widespread phenomenon compared with the Chinese government's use of prisons and labor camps for dissidents. But it is a particularly noxious practice, and one that deserves more attention and criticism than it has so far received.
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