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New York Times: Psychiatrists Rebuke China for Blocking Inspection Visit

June 01, 2003 |   By ERIK ECKHOLM

BEIJING, May 30 - In an unusual public rebuke, the World Psychiatric Association has called on China to fulfill its promise to let international experts examine charges that psychiatry has been misused in China as a political tool.

China's psychiatric practices have been criticized in recent years since hundreds of members of the outlawed Falun Gong spiritual movement were declared delusional and were forcibly hospitalized.

The forcible psychiatric commitment of political or labor dissidents on dubious medical grounds - commonplace during the Maoist fervor of the 1960's - is also still reported from time to time.

In August 2002, the world association, to which China's government-controlled psychiatric society belongs, voted to send an expert team to investigate the charges.

Officials of the group said the Chinese had agreed to cooperate, though ground rules for a visit were not spelled out.

In subsequent months, the Chinese provided written responses to inquires about many individual cases involving Falun Gong members, but these only raised further questions, Western experts said, making a direct visit to China's psychiatric facilities all the more necessary.

Starting late last year, even the written responses stopped coming.

Plans for a site visit "have been delayed during the past eight months by the limited collaboration on the part of the Chinese health authorities, in spite of the efforts of the Chinese Society of Psychiatry, which are gratefully recognized," the world association said in a statement issued this month.

A committee chairman of the world association, Harold I. Eist, said in a telephone interview: "Over the recent period they have not responded to requests for information or gone forward with what had seemed to be a clear willingness to have a visit. It began dragging on to the point where we felt we had fulfilled our responsibility to be collegial to a member organization, and so we issued this statement."

Western experts have debated whether political abuses of psychiatry in China at this point are systematic or, as some leading experts contend, an infrequent result of poor training and facilities, especially at the hospitals run by the Public Security Ministry.

The Chinese professional society has worked over the last two decades to bring psychiatry in line with world standards, and has generally cooperated with the recent inquiries, Western experts said. But the political authorities of the Ministry of Health have apparently blocked further action.

In late April the health minister was fired for his role in playing down the extent of SARS in China, and the turmoil caused both by SARS and the personnel changes may delay any decisions in Beijing.