China use of psychiatric hospitals to punish activists ‘widespread’

China’s use of psychiatric hospitals to imprison activists without due process remains routine, a rights group has said, accusing doctors and the healthcare system of colluding with authorities in punishing dissidents.

Beijing authorities for decades used the country’s system of psychiatric hospitals, known as Ankang, to punish political prisoners.

A report released Tuesday, 16 August by Madrid-based NGO Safeguard Defenders said the practice continues, despite reforms in the early 2010s that required medical assent and increased judicial oversight over China’s psychiatric care system.

The majority of the data in the report comes from interviews with victims and their families posted online by the Chinese NGO Civil Rights and Livelihood Watch (CRLW), an organization founded by activist and citizen journalist Liu Feiyue.

The data looks at the cases of 99 Chinese people forced into psychiatric hospitalization for political reasons between 2015 and 2021.  

“In 2022, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is still routinely locking up political targets in psychiatric hospitals despite implementing legal changes to stop this barbaric practice more than a decade ago,” the group said.

“The CCP is able to remove petitioners and activists entirely out of the justice system, with no hope of seeing a lawyer or going to trial, while ‘diagnosing’ them with mental illness so that they are socially isolated even after release,” it added.

“Doctors and hospitals collude with the CCP to subject victims to medically-unnecessary involuntary hospitalizations and forced medication.”

Most of the victims were petitioners, it said, “people who often struggle on the lowest rungs of the social ladder in China and are thus powerless and easy targets.”

“Such numbers indicate that sending political prisoners to psychiatric wards is widespread and routine in China.”

Detainees were often subject to physical and mental abuse, the report said, citing claims by prisoners that they had been subject to beatings, electroshock therapy, and solitary confinement.

Among those detained were a young girl who had live-tweeted herself splashing paint on a portrait of Chinese President Xi Jinping, a man who had petitioned Beijing for medical compensation for an injury sustained serving in the army, and longtime pro-democracy activist Song Zaimin, it added.

Beijing’s health ministry did not respond to a request for comment from AFP.

China is a global leader in locking up political opponents, a practice critics say has intensified under President Xi, the country’s most hardline ruler in decades. 

Beyond dissidents and petitioners, rights groups say at least one million people, mostly members of Muslim minorities, have been incarcerated in “re-education camps” in the western Xinjiang region and face widespread abuses, including forced sterilization and forced labor.

China says it is running vocational training centers in the region designed to counter extremism.

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