By ANDREW JACOBS
BEIJING — Local officials in Shandong Province have apparently found a cost-effective way to deal with gadflies, whistle-blowers and all manner of muckraking citizens who dare to challenge the authorities: dispatch them to the local psychiatric hospital.
In an investigative report published Monday by a state-owned newspaper, public security officials in the city of Xintai in Shandong Province were said to have been institutionalizing residents who persist in their personal campaigns to expose corruption or the unfair seizure of their property. Some people said they were committed for up to two years, and several of those interviewed said they were forcibly medicated.
The article, in The Beijing News, said most inmates were released after they agreed to give up their causes.
Sun Fawu, 57, a farmer seeking compensation for land spoiled by a coal-mining operation, said he was seized by local authorities on his way to petition the central government in Beijing and taken to the Xintai Mental Health Center in October.
During a 20-day stay, he said, he was lashed to a bed, forced to take pills and given injections that made him numb and woozy. According to the paper, when he told the doctor he was a petitioner, not mentally ill, the doctor said: “I don’t care if you’re sick or not. As long as you are sent by the township government, I’ll treat you as a mental patient.”
In an interview with the newspaper, the hospital’s director, Wu Yuzhu, acknowledged that some of the 18 patients brought there by the police in recent years were not deranged, but he said that he had no choice but to take them in. “The hospital also had its misgivings,” he said.
Xintai officials do not see any shame in the tactic, and they boasted that hospitalizing people they characterized as troublemakers saved money that would have been spent chasing them to Beijing. There is another reason to stop petitioners who seek redress from higher levels of government: they can prove embarrassing to local officials, especially if they make it to Beijing.
The Xintai government Web site noted that provincial authorities had recently referred to Xintai as “an advanced city in building a safe Shandong.” They said that from January to May this year, the number of petitioners who went over the heads of local authorities was 274, a 4 percent drop from the same period in 2007. Although China is not known for the kind of systematic abuse of psychiatry that occurred in the Soviet Union, human rights advocates say forced institutionalizations are not uncommon in smaller cities. Robin Munro, the research director of China Labor Bulletin, a rights organization in Hong Kong, said such “an kang” wards — Chinese for peace and health — were a convenient and effective means of dealing with pesky dissidents.
“Once a detainee has been officially diagnosed as dangerously mentally ill, they’re immediately taken out of the criminal justice system and they lose all legal rights,” said Mr. Munro, who has researched China’s practice of psychiatric detention.
In recent years practitioners of Falun Gong, the banned spiritual movement, have complained of what they call coerced hospitalizations. One of China’s best-known dissidents, Wang Wanxing, spent 13 years in a police-run psychiatric institution under conditions he later described as abusive.
In one recent, well-publicized case, Wang Jingmei, the mother of a man convicted of killing six policemen in Shanghai, was held incommunicado at a mental hospital for five months and released only days before her son was executed in late November.
The article in The Beijing News about the hospitalizations in Xintai was notable for the attention it gained in China’s constrained state-run media. Such Communist Party stalwarts as People’s Daily and the Xinhua news agency republished the article, and it was picked up by scores of Web sites. At Sina.com, the country’s most popular portal, the report ranked as the fifth most-viewed news headline, and readers posted more than 23,000 comments by evening. The indignation expressed was universal, with many clamoring for the dismissal of those involved. “They’re no different from animals,” read one post. “No, they’re worse.”
By Monday evening, the Xintai city government was rejecting the report by The Beijing News as reckless and slanted. In a telephone interview broadcast on Shandong provincial television, an unidentified municipal official suggested that those confined to the mental hospital had gone mad from their single-minded quest for justice. “There are some people who have been petitioning for years and become mentally aggravated,” the official said.
Reached by phone on Monday, a hospital employee said Mr. Wu, the hospital director who voiced his misgivings to The Beijing News, was unavailable. The employee, Hu Peng, said that officials from the local government had taken him away for “a meeting” earlier in the day.
Although he would not provide a reporter with contact information for the former patients, Mr. Hu defended the hospitalizations, saying that all those delivered by the Public Security Bureau were sick. He added that the hospital was not authorized to provide a diagnosis to the patients, only to treat them. “We definitely would not accept those without mental problems,” he said.
Huang Yuanxi contributed research.
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