Weapons of the State: Psychiatric Facilities in China

Prisoners of conscience in China.

Psychiatric hospitals in China are being used by the state to imprison and punish petitioners and activists. (Image: via Safeguard Defenders)

To achieve the goal of total control a communist regime will use whatever means necessary to accomplish it. There are many instances in history that could be used as an example, even supposed healthcare has been used as a weapon, particularly psychiatric facilities, by the state to stamp out those targeted.

Two ongoing examples are occurring in the People’s Republic of China. For starters, there’s state-sanctioned organ harvesting targeting minorities, principally Falun Gong practitioners to supply a billion-dollar transplant trade. Then there’s the abuse of psychiatric facilities used to punish petitioners and activists as highlighted by a recent report by China-focused human rights group Safeguard Defenders.

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For that second example, the report “Drugged and Detained: China’s Psychiatric Prisons” investigates how the regime disappears critics through forced hospitalization at psychiatric facilities without medical reasons.

“Called Ankang, after the system of police-run psychiatric prisons launched in the 1980s, nowadays, most victims are locked up in regular psychiatric wards, meaning that doctors and hospitals collude with authorities to subject victims to medically-unnecessary involuntary hospitalizations and forced medication,” the report’s executive summary said.

“Ten years ago, China passed a new Mental Health Law aimed in part at preventing this abuse,” it said, adding that the “law has not worked” as “local police and government agents continue to routinely and widely practice the political abuse of psychiatry across China.”

“We used more than 140 secondary sources, the majority interviews with victims and families from 2015 to 2021. This data is just the ‘tip of the iceberg.’”

State-sanctioned organ harvesting targeting minorities, principally Falun Gong practitioners, supplies a billion-dollar transplant trade. (Image: Maximbg via Dreamstime)

Activists and petitioners in China are sent to psychiatric facilities

There have been previous reports—such as Dangerous Minds: Political Psychiatry in China Today and its Origins in the Mao Era published in 2002—that shone some light on what was occurring in China’s Ankangs, which applied pressure on the regime for change resulting in the aforementioned Mental Health Law.

The Safeguard Defenders’ report says that political abuse of psychiatry in China still occurs and that the measures the regime had taken to end it did not bring about any substantial improvement.

“The CCP [Chinese Communist Party] continues to send activists and petitioners to psychiatric facilities where, they face a range of human rights abuses including arbitrary detention, beatings, forced medication, electroconvulsive therapy, and repeated incarceration,” the report said.  

“Victim testimonies featured in [the] report describe both psychological and physical abuse; in one case, this led to the loss of a life … Effectively, police are still using the ‘Ankang’ system to conveniently punish and remove activists and petitioners from society without the trouble of going through a trial.”

Among the victims locked up in psychiatric facilities, 80 percent were petitioners, 14 percent were activists, and 6 percent were described as others. Of those people, some 66 percent had no psychiatric evaluation.

The report gave three points about why the CCP uses hospital facilities to silence critics.

  • It silences them: Locked up, they cannot petition, protest or talk to the media
  • It acts as a deterrent: Involuntary hospitalization is a terrifying experience; fear may stop them from petitioning or protesting after release
  • It stigmatizes them: They are discredited and isolated from others with this false label of “mental illness”
Among the victims locked up in psychiatric facilities, 80 percent were petitioners, 14 percent were activists, while 5 percent remaining were described as others. Of those people, some 66 percent had no psychiatric evaluation.
Among the victims locked up in psychiatric facilities, 80 percent were petitioners, 14 percent were activists, and 6 percent were described as others. Of those people, some 66 percent had no psychiatric evaluation.
(Image: Sudok1 via Dreamstime)

The report also provided some historical background on how the Ankang system evolved.

“The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has always been suspicious of its critics, whether they be intellectuals, activists, religious followers, or whistle-blowers, and sought ways to control and suppress them,” it said.

“There is abundant evidence that one of these is the involuntary commitment into a psychiatric facility with no medical justification.

“For the first few decades after the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, political targets were regularly diagnosed insane and committed to prison hospitals. This enshrined the official belief, borrowed from similar practices in the then Soviet Union, that anyone holding a conflicting ideology to that of the CCP’s must be suffering from a mental illness.”

Released on Aug. 16, the Safeguard Defenders’ report earned press coverage from various media including an editorial in The Washington Post.

The Madrid-based NGO was established in late 2016 after its director Peter Dahlin left China after he himself had been abused by the communist state. Earlier in 2009, he had co-founded a small human rights NGO called China Action in Beijing until it was closed by the state amid a wider crackdown earlier in 2016. Dahlin was detained for 23-days in a so-called Residential Surveillance at a Designated Location, or RSDL jail, and made to do a false confession on state TV.

Watch this China Unscripted interview with Dahlin made in 2020.

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