The authorities in the former Soviet Union employed political psychiatry against a wide range of different types of people: political dissidents, religious sectarians and spiritual nonconformists, ethnic nationalists, labor rights activists, and Jewish people seeking emigration to Israel, among others. In China, the principal known target of such treatment since 1949 has been political activists of various kinds, together with a variety of people accused of "disturbing public order," such as petitioners, complainants, "whistleblowers" and "litigious maniacs." Our current lack of detailed information on individual cases does not, however, necessarily mean that people of other types and categories, similar to those seen in the former Soviet case, have not also been subjected to compulsory psychiatric treatment and hospitalization in China. For example, several cases of Chinese labor activists being dealt with in this manner have just recently come to light. Since the latter part of 1999, however, it has become abundantly clear that religious sectarians now also form a major target of politically repressive psychiatry in China.

In April 1999, a [...] numerically large spiritual community in China calling itself the Falun Dafa (Great Wheel of Buddha's Law) or Falun Gong (Cultivation of the Wheel of the Law) staged an unannounced peaceful protest demonstration outside Zhongnanhai, the main Communist Party leadership compound in central Beijing. [Editor's note: It was not a demonstration. Those practitioners simply went to appeal to the Appeal Office of the Council of State Affairs, which happens to be near Zhongnanhai.] According to reports, more than 10,000 practitioners from the group, whose devotional activities center on the practice of a traditional form of Chinese physical and mental exercises known as qigong, took part in the silent, day-long vigil. The source of their dissatisfaction was an escalating campaign of official criticism of the Falun Gong movement, and of its leader, a middle-aged former government official named Li Hongzhi. [Editor's note: They appealed because the police in Tianjin city unlawfully detained and beated 40 some Falun Gong practitioners and local authorities told them only the Central Government can solve the issue.] The public demonstration was the largest held in China since the Tiananmen protests of May 1989, and it apparently caught the government's security services completely by surprise. A flurry of official condemnations quickly followed, but no overt action was taken against the Falun Gong until July 19-20, when dozens of the group's leading organizers and practitioners were suddenly arrested by police in the middle of the night. Two days later, and thus retroactively, as far as those already detained were concerned, the government announced that the Falun Gong was a proscribed organization and that it was to immediately cease all activities throughout the country. Since then, tens of thousands of practitioners nationwide have been detained, arrested, sent to jail or labor camps for periods of several weeks or years, or formally charged and sentenced to terms of up to 18 years' imprisonment. As of November 2000, reports indicate that more than seventy detained practitioners have died as a result of torture or severe ill treatment at the hands of the authorities. Despite this harsh campaign of governmental repression, thousands of Falun Gong practitioners have continued, on an almost daily basis, to travel to Beijing and other major cities to stage peaceful protests against the continuing crackdown; they are invariably arrested within moments and carted off to police holding centers to await their punishment.

The most distinctive aspect of the government's protracted campaign to crush the Falun Gong, aside from its sheer scope and brutality, has been the flood of reports that began emerging in the latter half of 1999 indicating that large numbers of the group's detained practitioners were being forcibly sent to mental hospitals by the security authorities. By late 2000, overseas Falun Gong support groups had documented well over a hundred such cases where the names and other details of the victims were known, while overall estimates of the total number dealt with by the authorities in this way had risen to around six hundred. These various reports have not yet been independently confirmed by international human rights groups or similar organizations, and instances of factual error or misreporting may eventually come to light, however, there is presently no reason or evidence for doubting their overall veracity. Certainly, numerous Western journalists who have witnessed police raids on Falun Gong demonstrators, in Beijing and elsewhere, have frequently reported seeing detainees being severely beaten up in front of their own eyes, so there is no grounds for believing that such people receive any more humane treatment after their removal from the public arena.

The accounts of the treatment meted out to detained practitioners in mental asylums around the country make frequent and consistent reference to the following kinds of practices: people are drugged with various unknown kinds of medication, tied with ropes to hospital beds or put under other forms of physical restraint, kept in dark hospital rooms for long periods, subjected to electro-convulsive therapy or painful forms of electrical acupuncture treatment, denied adequate food and water and allowed only restricted access to toilet facilities, forced to write confessional statements renouncing their belief in Falun Gong as a precondition of their eventual release, and then required to pay fines or unreceipted charges of several thousand yuan for their board and treatment in the hospital. Many have been held in mental asylums since the late summer and fall of 1999, when the news of this form of repressive treatment was first reported. Among the currently known victims have been university professors, medical workers, government functionaries, members of the police and armed forces (including several senior officers), farmers, students, housewives, and a judge. Three of those sent forcibly to mental asylums are reported to have died as a direct consequence of the ill treatment they received there. Thus far, it appears that Falun Gong practitioners subjected to this treatment have been sent to regular mental hospitals rather than to Ankang custodial facilities; the main reason for this is probably that most Chinese cities do not yet possess any such specialized psychiatric detention facilities. Many outside observers, however, have found the Chinese government's continuing campaign against the Falun Gong to be closely reminiscent of the kinds of extreme and unbridled political campaigns waged by the Party during the Cultural Revolution. In this connection, it should be noted that the security authorities' current practice of detaining Falun Gong practitioners in normal psychiatric institutions, rather than going through the due process normally required for forensic committals, certainly appears to be a worrying reversion to the widespread pattern of arbitrary political-psychiatric abuse that prevailed during the Cultural Revolution.


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