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Chinese Dissidents Committed to Mental Hospitals

September 11, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT

JIM LEHRER: Next tonight, a diagnosis of mental illness for political dissidents in China. Special correspondent Shannon Van Sant has our Global Health Unit story. She has reported from China for our PBS colleagues at the “Nightly Business Report,” among other programs.

SHANNON VAN SANT: Qin Xinan is a long way from home. He has traveled from Wuhan, 700 miles away in central China, to Beijing, where he stays in this one-room shack. Every morning, he goes to government offices, pleading for help.

QIN XINAN, petitioner: I strongly ask Hu Jintao and the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee to punish corruption. Save Chinese people, ordinary people, the weak in society. Save China.

I’m not only standing on my own ground. I speak for thousands of people who get persecuted as mentally ill patients.

SHANNON VAN SANT: A former officer in the People’s Liberation Army, Qin has been forcibly hospitalized six times, accused of being mentally ill. He says he’s not the only one with grievances who’s been treated that way.

QIN XINAN: The first time the diagnosis was acute stress disorder. The second time was paranoid schizophrenia. The third time, just like all the other petitioners, doctors diagnosed me with paranoid psychosis.

Centuries-old system

SHANNON VAN SANT: Qin's journey began when he came to Beijing to complain about corruption in the factory he worked in. He was a petitioner, one of thousands who come here to seek redress from the central Chinese government for various wrongs, from land seizures to mistreatment by police.

Once in the capital, they stay in makeshift petitioners' villages, like this one. China's petitioning system dates back to the Ming Dynasty 700 years ago, when people appealed for help from the imperial court if they had problems with local officials.

When I visited this neighborhood, petitioners quickly approached, telling me their stories. Within minutes, I was spotted by security officers who marched me out of the neighborhood. When I tried to leave, people surrounded my taxicab, showing me copies of their petitions.

China's emphasis on social harmony provides an incentive for petitioners to press for justice, but it also sets the stage for their persecution. That's because petitioners know that Chinese officials in the central government take unrest in local communities seriously, but the local officials who are being complained about will often seek retribution or try to stop people from petitioning in the first place.

Teng Biao, a professor at the University of Politics and Law in Beijing, says the system itself creates these kinds of problems. He runs an NGO to provide legal aid to petitioners.

TENG BIAO, University of Politics and Law, Beijing: From the top down, the petitioning situation is an assessing index for the officials on their political achievements. If there are many petitioners coming to Beijing from a place, then it will affect the local officials on their promotions and bonuses.

Government crack-down

SHANNON VAN SANT: For his work, Teng Biao had his lawyers license and passport taken away. After this interview, Chinese authorities shut down Teng Biao's NGO, and police detained two of his colleagues. Despite the risk, Teng said he will continue his work.

I traveled to Wuhan to talk with another Chinese activist, Liu Feiyue, but he was under house arrest. Liu heads an NGO that is currently following 100 cases of wrongful psychiatric detention. Over the last three years, he says he knows of 500 more whistleblowers and protesters who have been detained in mental hospitals.

Robin Munro, who has extensively researched psychiatric detention in China and written two books on the topic, thinks the practice is widespread.

ROBIN MUNRO, human rights activist: China's experience in this area is far more serious and extensive than any other country.

SHANNON VAN SANT: Munro, who is based in Hong Kong, believes that since there are no national mental health laws protecting the rights of people who have been compulsorily hospitalized, but there are rules limiting arbitrary arrest, hospitals are becoming a convenient means of silencing protesters.

ROBIN MUNRO: Once diagnosed in this way, as dangerously mentally ill, citizens have no rights. They have no legal right to see a lawyer; they have no legal right to be brought before a judge so that a judicial determination can be made.

SHANNON VAN SANT: The Chinese press, including the Beijing News, has reported on the hospitalizations. The story was picked up by the state's official press agency, The People's Daily and, where it drew 23,000 comments. Such coverage in Chinese newspapers could imply there is central government support for preventing wrongful psychiatric detention by local officials.

China's Ministry of Health denied requests for an interview, but sent a list of relevant regulations on treatment of the mentally ill, which said, in part, "The diagnosis of psychiatric disease is, according to the Chinese mental disorder category and diagnosis standard third edition, approved by Chinese medical association and referring to the related standards of international disease diagnosis category."

When asked at a press conference about the increasing numbers of protesters being put in mental hospitals, the spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said...

QIN GANG, Spokesperson, Ministry of Foreign Affairs (through translator): It's the first time for me to hear the situation you addressed. I don't know about the situation of psychiatric hospitals, but please believe the related Chinese governmental departments conduct administration according to law.

Threats to stop petitioners

SHANNON VAN SANT: But in Wuhan, another petitioner, Hu Guohong, said he has been forcibly hospitalized in mental institutions four times and that he and his wife, Cheng Xue, have been warned repeatedly by local officials to stop petitioning.

HU GUOHONG, petitioner: They said, "We don't allow you to go petitioning to the upper levels. If you do that, we will beat you to death."

SHANNON VAN SANT: Since the couple is under police surveillance, I met them at a hotel room late at night. They showed me a list, with thumbprint signatures, of fellow petitioners who have been detained in Wuhan's psychiatric hospitals.

Hu said, when he complained about being owed back-pay for his work constructing railroad cars, he was beaten by the factory's security team. After Hu demanded compensation for his injuries, police put him in the Wuhan Ankang Psychiatric Hospital for three days.

Since then, doctors have diagnosed him with schizophrenia and paranoia. Police often arrest him before major events, as they did before the Olympics.

HU GUOHONG: They gave me one, and then two yellow pills every day. They said they would set me free after the Olympics. They told me to be nice. But after the Olympics and during the Paralympics, they still held me. At the end of September, I escaped. They caught me, and the next day they gave me electric shocks.

SHANNON VAN SANT: The shocks were administered with electrified needles that pierced the feet, the palms of his hands, and his temples.

HU GUOHONG: The electric shocks continued for two hours of high voltage.

Refusing to give up

SHANNON VAN SANT: He's been detained twice since then, including just after I interviewed him, which was five days before the anniversary of the government's crackdown in Tiananmen Square. He was kept in a hospital for 12 days.

ROBIN MUNRO: Whenever there's a big -- there's a crackdown of some kind going on in the country, a political crackdown or the Olympics are coming up, a huge international event, then the police will be instructed to go out and preemptively detain anyone who might stage an embarrassing incident to the government in the run-up to these crucial events. And people on the list who are mentally ill -- or allegedly mentally ill -- are among the first people that will be preemptively detained.

SHANNON VAN SANT: Despite the dangers, many petitioners refuse to give up. Qin Xinan says he'll stay in Beijing as long as he can, petitioning for help.

QIN XINAN: I have been to Beijing 133 times. I have no other way. My family is destroyed. I wander the streets of Beijing. I am a 60-year-old man begging for food and asking the government for justice, to right a wrong.

SHANNON VAN SANT: But he expects to be arrested by the end of the summer, before the anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on October 1st.

JIM LEHRER: And since that report was produced, the Chinese government has cracked down further on activists. For the first time, they've issued a regulation banning petitioners from traveling to Beijing.