In most countries, mental health facilities are places of refuge for those who are mentally ill. In China, however, this is not necessarily the case. The Ankang mental health hospitals in China have long been utilized by the state to involuntarily confine those who are considered “troublemakers” by relatives, local police, and the Communist Party. In reality, the Ankang (安康) is a component of China’s vast system of arbitrary detention institutions. As such, it is little more than an alternatives to the current laojiao prison system of forced reeducation through labor (劳动教养) for keeping political dissidents, activists and petitioners out of the public eye.1 These facilities give the government the ability to indefinitely lock up in psychiatric detention centers anyone deemed a danger to themselves. Public officials and local authorities often utilize the Ankang system to incarcerate individuals trying to make a formal complaint against the government. In fact, it has been estimated that between 70 and 80 percent of the mental health patients in China are involuntarily incarcerated.2
These unwilling “patients” are closely watched by the government, as most of the hospital staff, including the doctors and nurses, are full time employees of the Public Security Bureau. PSB officials use techniques such as over-medication and torture to cure these “patients” of their alleged ailments. Methods of torture include excessive beatings, electric shock treatment and forced insulin comas. These human rights violations occur routinely in the 25 known Ankang facilities and have been well documented by monitoring organizations such as the Human Rights Watch.3
Being detained in the Ankang mental facilities unwillingly is such a common practice in China that the term “mentally ill-ed” has become part of the popular lexicon in China. The case of Li Shijie serves as an example of the ease with which authorities detain individuals in such facilities. In 2011, Li Shijie got into an argument with a restaurant owner over the owner’s refusal to turn on the air conditioning. The restaurant owner subsequently called the police, who detained Li after arriving on the scene. Li reportedly spent the next four or five hours arguing with the authorities, declaring that they had no reason to further hold him. Tired of listening to him voice his legal rights, the police ultimately decided to “mentally ill” Li, sending him to Shaoguan hospital. Li spent spent 96 days in this Ankang facility, enduring harsh treatment during his confinement.4 At the time of his commitment to the facility, he presented no real danger to himself or others, yet was forcibly detained in order for the police to save face. Cases like Li’s are not uncommon in China.
In an apparent attempt to reform this unjust system, on May 1st, 2013 the government announced the first law standardizing mental health care in China. Known as the Mental Health Law, the statute took 27 years to draft and is the first law to regulate mental health in China.5 While the implementation of this law could reflect genuine desire for change in the system from the centralized government in Beijing, Human Rights Watch Asia Director Sophie Richardson argues that it does not close the loopholes that permit forced psychiatric detainment.2 For example, the law explicitly states that psychiatric care should be voluntary, yet family members, employers and government officials are permitted to send others to be evaluated. If this evaluation concludes that the person is a “danger to oneself or others,” they can be locked up against their own will. The definition of the word “danger” articulated in the statute is so broad that virtually any person can be qualified as such.6
Some suspect that the law was created merely to placate the international community. Although the government has expressed desire to move away from forced asylum detention, loopholes provide authorities with ample means to maintain the status quo. In effect, the law does little than lend hollow support to Beijing’s alleged commitment to improving its human rights record. Despite the law’s deficiencies, China perhaps views it as a tool enhance it reputation in the international community.
Whether the enactment of the Mental Health Law is motivated by a genuine desire to reform the forced imprisonment system or just represents an attempt to keep the international community at bay, the current system is unsustainable. As Brian Adams, the former Asia director at the Human Rights Watch has stated, “It is time for China’s leaders to decide that their ‘modernization’ drive should include an end to barbaric practices such as using psychiatric facilities and medically unnecessary drugs to punish those with different political views.”3
1"The Laogai: Exercising Dictatorship Over Dissent." . Laogai Research Foundation. Web. <http://laogai.org/system/files/lrf_laogai_factsheet.pdf>.
2"China: End Arbitrary Detention in Mental Health Institutions." Human Rights Watch 03 May 2013, Web. <http://www.hrw.org/news/2013/05/03/china-end-arbitrary-detention-mental-health-institutions>.
3"China: Political Prisoner Exposes Brutality in Police-Run Mental Hospital." Human Rights Watch. 03 Nov 2005: Web.<http://www.hrw.org/news/2005/10/31/china-political-prisoner-exposes-brutality-police-run-
4"Man Sues Chinese Hospital Over Forced Psychiatric Admission." Radio Free Asia. 14 May 2013: Web. 16 May. 2013. <http://www.rfa.org/english/news/china/sues-05142013105349.html>.
5"China: Mental Health Law Passes." New York Times 01 May 2013, Web. 2013. <http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/27/world/asia/china-mental-health-law-passes.html?_r=1&>.
6"China media: New mental health law." BBC Asia 01 May 2013, Web. <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-china-22363125>.