Chen Guoming protested in a Beijing park in July 2011 to raise awareness about involuntary commitment to mental institutions. The message on the ground reads, “anyone may be ‘made mentally ill’.”Equality and Justice InitiativeChen Guoming protested in a Beijing park in July 2011 to raise awareness about involuntary commitment to mental institutions. The message on the ground reads, “anyone may be ‘made mentally ill’.”
BEIJING — In February 2011, Chen Guoming, 45, a jewelry store owner in southern China’s Fujian Province, was drugged by his wife, tied up with tape and taken to a psychiatric hospital where he was committed as mentally ill.
While in hospital, much of Mr. Chen’s fortune worth about $1.3 million — in shares, gold and jewels — disappeared, according to the Procuratorate Daily, a newspaper tied to the Supreme People’s Procuratorate, the country’s top prosecution and investigation agency.
For 56 days, Mr. Chen was unable to get his freedom back. His wife was considered by hospital and police officials to be his legal guardian and she refused to permit his release, despite new verdicts from doctors that Mr. Chen was not mentally ill. His release finally came through the efforts of his sister, the newspaper reported.
The abuse of involuntary commitment to psychiatric hospitals is a hot topic in China, with cases like Mr. Chen’s gaining widespread media attention. A Hong Kong-based human rights group, the Chinese Human Rights Defenders, in a report this week called on the government to ensure that a long-awaited Mental Health Law — under discussion for over quarter of a century — comply with international norms and protect the rights of both the mentally ill and the non-mentally ill from the power of the state, but also from the power of the family to incarcerate involuntarily, under conditions that are murky at best.
In the report, “The Darkest Corners: Abuses of Involuntary Psychiatric Commitment in China,” the group says cases like Mr. Chen’s are by no means rare.
“China’s involuntary commitment system is a black hole into which citizens can be ‘disappeared’ for an indefinite period of time based on the existence or mere allegation of a psychosocial disability by family members, employers, police or other state authorities,” the group wrote. “A combination of factors — namely, a deficient legal and regulatory framework, coupled with a lack of judicial independence — is primarily to blame for this state of affairs.”
Chinese laws and regulations currently do not provide people like Mr. Chen, and dozens of others documented by the group, with the right to an independent review of their mental health status or the legality of their detention; nor is there a right to a court hearing or access to counsel, contravening the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, a United Nations treaty ratified by China in 2008, the group said.
The group called on China to honor its obligations, and pointed out that a treaty committee is scheduled to visit on Sept. 18 and 19 to conduct its first review of China’s compliance.
However, the group warned that the government’s draft of the proposed Mental Health Law, released for public comment in October last year, “appears to codify the current involuntary commitment system, which violates the CRPD.”
The report also focused on persecution by the state of dissidents and petitioners for justice, whose rights it said are routinely violated.
“The current system of psychiatric confinement is also highly vulnerable to abuse,” it said. “Those who have the means — power and money — to either compel or pay psychiatric hospitals to detain individuals out of a desire to punish and silence them have been able to do so with impunity,” with individuals “taken to psychiatric hospitals to punish them after they acted in ways that irked government officials, such as petitioning higher authorities or publishing articles criticizing the government.”
While there is virtually no public debate in China on the fate of dissidents in the country’s psychiatric system, involuntary commitment of non-dissidents has become a hot topic, as reports like this one in the People’s Daily Overseas edition show. The headline translates as “China plans laws to prevent ‘being made mentally ill’.”
Mr. Chen’s problems began when he refused to lend money to his wife’s father, the report in the Procuratorate Daily said. After his release, Mr. Chen accused his wife of “intentional injury” and “illegal detention,” but the Shaowu City Public Security Bureau in Fujian refused to investigate the circumstances of his detention.
His wife’s conduct did not constitute a crime, since “Paranoid disorder is only visible to the spouse, and your wife thought you were mentally ill and had the right to take you to a psychiatric hospital,” the group quoted police as saying.
Source: Didi Kirsten Tatlow, “China Pressed to Prevent Abuse of Psychiatric Confinement,” International Herald Tribune, August 23, 2012.