Lancet 2000; 356: 920 - 922

Because the Chinese government continues to assign Falun Gong practitioners forced psychiatric treatment, psychiatric and human-rights organisations have called on the World Psychiatric Association (WPA) to intervene to stop further "misuse and abuse of psychiatry" in China. "The problem is very serious . . . and it is absolutely crucial that the WPA acts now or the problem can become worse than anything we saw in the erstwhile Soviet Union", warns Abraham Halpern, professor emeritus of psychiatry, New York Medical College, USA.

The Falun Gong, which draws on Buddhism, Taoism, and the traditional Chinese doctrine of qigong, was banned in China in July last year. Since then, more than 600 practitioners, who have not been diagnosed with a mental disorder, have been involuntarily detained in psychiatric hospitals where they are administered forced injections and other improper medications with a view to make them renounce their belief. According to the Hong Kong-based Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy, as of Sept 4, at least 50 members have died in custody.

"It is unthinkable that this is happening in any country of the world in the 21st century" says Viviana Galli (Blanchfield Army Community Hospital, Fort Campbell, KY, USA) who visited China with an American Psychiatric Association (APA) team in April.

Halpern said that the practitioners are increasingly subjected to forced incarceration in mental hospitals in order to brand them "mentally ill and crazy" and discredit Fulan Gong. Earlier this year police admitted to having incarcerated about 50 followers in Zhokoudian Psychiatric Hospital near Beijing for "re-education" (see Lancet 2000; 355: 495). "I suspect that many political dissidents are being dealt with similarly", Halpern added.

Meanwhile, efforts are gaining momentum to pressure WPA to intervene. The APA has already called on WPA to take action. Last week, Physicians for Human Rights expressed deep concern at the continued persecution of the practitioners. In addition, the Board of Directors of Geneva Initiative on Psychiatry is to meet in November to discuss among other things, the abuse of psychiatry in China. "But I have much doubt that WPA will take appropriate action, if any", said Halpern, adding: "there is a strong sentiment in the APA to withdraw from WPA, and should WPA fails to do something about what's going on in China, that might be the straw the breaks the camel's back."

But Martin Deahl who chairs the ethics sub-committee of the Royal College of Psychiatrists in London, UK, said: "Basically the College is aware of the problem, but that it is essential to work carefully with the Chinese, by condemning them you just alienate them. There is obviously good and bad in all systems, and it is best to try and encourage the vast majority who are not involved in these abuses of psychiatry, but who wish to promote good practice."

Meanwhile, a large protest meeting will take place in front of the Chinese Mission in New York City on Sept 6. The event will culminate with a march to the United Nations when Chinese President, Jiang XX, is scheduled to give an address.

Khabir Ahmad