The Ankang: An Examination of The Abusive Practices Within High Security Chinese Mental Institutions And a Discussion of How The Chinese Communist Party Has Turned Psychiatry Into An Instrument of Suppression

Release date: 


By Carly Millenson 


Delusions of reform, litigious mania, political monomania – these terms cannot be found in any reputable psychology textbook, and yet for the last sixty years these short phrases have been used by the Chinese Communist Party to justify the indefinite incarceration without trial of dissidents, petitioners, and other political undesirables on the grounds that they are criminally insane.[1] The term Ankang, which paradoxically translates to “peace and health,”[2] refers to a system of high security psychiatric wards directly administered by the Chinese Ministry of Public Security[3] where mentally sound individuals who have run afoul of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) are held alongside the genuinely mentally ill for years, sometimes decades, and subjected to appalling conditions.

Declaring lucid individuals criminally insane for political reasons was first pioneered on a large scale by the Soviet Union. There, political prisoners officially diagnosed with “sluggish schizophrenia,” a bogus term invented by the Soviet authorities, were locked away with genuinely mentally disturbed individuals and frequently subjected to torture. After China’s Communist revolution, the CCP borrowed and adapted this abusive use of psychiatric treatment facilities to fit its own needs. Thus, the Ankang was born.[4]

The advantages of masquerading as a normal high security mental institution, rather than a prison for those whose freedom has become inconvenient to the CCP for political reasons, are manifold. Fudging release dates is easier when the prisoner is supposedly a criminally insane threat to society. Furthermore, as with the Soviet use of faux psychiatry to suppress dissent, by imprisoning these irksome individuals in asylums, the CCP is able to discredit the victims and avoid turning them into martyrs for a higher political cause.

The mentality behind the operation of these prisons and the phony “diagnoses” with which patients are often committed is especially chilling. According to a 2002 report from Human Rights Watch, a 1990 official encyclopedia of police work delineates the three main types of people who may be taken into police psychiatric custody. The second of these three critical groups is “political maniacs” whose symptoms include a tendency to “shout reactionary slogans, write reactionary banners and reactionary letters, make anti-government speeches in public, and express opinions on important domestic and international affairs.”[5] Despite the claims of this encyclopedia, these alleged symptoms of mental illness are in truth simply attempts to exercise the right to freedom of speech, guaranteed to all individuals by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR)[6] and the Chinese Constitution.[7]  

In his special report for Human Rights Watch, Robert Munro quotes a Chinese psychology textbook dealing with these issues. The following text appears as quoted in his report:

“The acts and views of paranoiacs do not match their education, reading, and status. There was, for example, an old retired worker with only three years of elementary school education who worked untiringly to write a "Manifesto of Scientific Communism." He bought a typewriter and printer with his own money and sent his "work" out everywhere. Neither his wife nor his children could convince him to stop.”[8]

This quote implies that an individual without access to education is consequently incapable of forming any kind of advanced thought and that any attempt to do so indicates insanity. Of course, this argument is nonsensical given that many of the greatest leaders and instigators of change throughout history did not have access to advanced schooling. Although education certainly plays a vital role in the development of intellectual skills, it is entirely separate from actual intellect. This alleged anecdote is especially hypocritical given that Mao Zedong himself, despite leading the Communist Revolution in China, had limited schooling.[9]

Reports of the misuse of both antipsychotic medications and electroshock treatments are extremely common in accounts by victims of the Ankang. The medications administered to patients at these institutions are often no longer used by legitimate medical practitioners due to their unpleasant and often dangerous side effects. To maximize the discomfort of the victims, in the Ankang these medications are administered in extremely high doses, thus exacerbating the side effects and causing horrific physical responses such as swelling of the whole body, paralysis, blood clots, and severe, sometimes fatal, palpitations, along with other painful reactions. Furthermore, electric shocks at extremely high voltages are frequently used to torture patients either for infractions or as an intimidation tactic. These vile conditions are not acceptable under any circumstances and are utterly inexcusable whether inflicted upon the genuinely mentally ill or sane political prisoners. The fact that many of the individuals enduring these “treatments” are perfectly lucid people whose actions or beliefs represent a political threat in the eyes of the Chinese Communist Party, adds another dimension to the atrocious human rights violations that pervade the Ankang system.


Inside the Ankang

A 2012 report by Human Rights in China details the case of Li Jinping and his experiences with China’s abusive use of mental health institutions for the repression of its citizens.[10]  Li attracted the ire of the Chinese Communist party for advocating the political rehabilitation of Zhao Ziyang, the former General Secretary of the CCP who passed away in 2005; Li’s methods included writing letters to the National People’s Congress and holding up banners in Tiananmen Square. His actions resulted in multiple detentions by the police and prolonged high intensity surveillance of his activities. In 2008, without reaching a relocation agreement with Li, the Chinese authorities illegally demolished his home and destroyed the tree nursery on which he depended for his livelihood, in breach of Chinese law[11] and UDHR provisions[12] protecting individuals’ property rights. Finally, Li was taken into police custody on October 8, 2010 and sent to a psychiatric hospital on November 30th of the same year; there, he nearly died from being forced to take high doses of anti-psychotic drugs with potentially fatal side effects. After only six months in the facility he developed cerebral blood clots and cerebral atrophy. He was transferred to a general hospital on June 22, 2011 for treatment and was discharged on the 28th of July. 

What follows is an excerpt of his account, translated into English by Human Rights in China.

“On November 30, 2010, the head of the local police substation said: “Stop saying that Zhao Ziyang was innocent.” I said I would not stop. He then said: “Sign your name on the demolition agreement.” I said no, I did not agree with the terms: they were giving me 100 square meters worth of compensation for 800 square meters. “Since you don’t agree, let’s take this discussion somewhere else!” Ten police officers dragged me into a police vehicle and handcuffed me. They took me to Chaoyang District Shuangqiao No. 3 Hospital, also known as the Chaoyang Mental Health Center, a psychiatric hospital. When I saw the sign, I started to cry. I tried to control my emotions—I said I didn’t break the law and wasn’t ill. They said, “If we say you’re sick, you are sick.” They took me into a room for the seriously disturbed.

There were a total of three people in this room. The other two were not lucid so I had nobody to talk to. There were nurses in this room whose job it was to keep watch on us round-the-clock and who separated me from other patients, not letting me have any contact with them. During lunch on the first day, they let me eat at the cafeteria. The head nurse, named Wang, brought me a bowl of rice with soup and vegetables. I didn’t want to eat but was also afraid. They said I was paranoid. So I ate five or six mouthfuls. After coming back to my room, I felt discomfort in my stomach and felt nauseous and vomited. After that, I had headaches and couldn’t fall asleep. It took a week for me to feel better. 

Twenty days later, they wanted to do a blood test, but I wouldn’t let them. They tied me down onto the bed and took my blood forcibly. After the test, they said I had Hepatitis B and forced me to take medicine. It was Risperdal [an anti-psychotic drug known to have potentially fatal side effects]. They told me it was medicine to regulate my moods. After I took the medicine, I had a numbing pain in my whole body, and I felt pain in my head and my heart.”

The statement, “If we say you’re sick, you are sick” demonstrates the perpetrators’ chilling awareness that they held the sole power to declare their victim insane. Li was clearly a lucid individual targeted due to his political views and unwillingness to cooperate with Party dictates. He knew it. His tormentors knew it. Although on paper he was not a political prisoner, the distinction was purely one of terminology.

Li Jinping’s experience is hardly an isolated one, nor even a new one. In his extensive Human Rights Watch report on the Chinese government’s abuse of psychiatry for political purposes, Munro includes an excerpt from an account written by a female dissident who was held in the Shanghai Ankang facility in early 1987. She included details of several other “political maniacs” who were held along side her. A selection of her account reads:[13]

“The only difference between [prison and this hospital] was that the two used different methods of punishment. The instruments of punishment in prison were common handcuffs, whereas the hospital used medical appliances...

If patients were disobedient in the hospital, the doctors would increase their medication. Besides eating, they only felt like sleeping, and often suffered from cramps. This is not a civilian hospital that you can leave in three or five months. There, three or five years was considered to be a short time. Moreover, you had to work for seven hours a day. Those who were on more medication dribbled saliva constantly. Their eyes often rolled upwards helplessly in their sockets. They walked slowly and stumbled frequently.

If such and such a person was to be punished, her bed would be taken to the area between the dining hall and the workshop, and she would be tied by her four limbs to the bed by straps looped through the metal bed frame. In this way the nurses could supervise her from morning till night. In the daytime during working hours the dormitory was locked. Sometimes two people could be punished at once. During the daytime when everyone was working, we looked at the women's hands and feet tied to the bed. We all kept silent, lowered our heads and carried on working. In the evening when we returned to the dormitory, we would watch the bed carried away, and see the empty space where it had stood. A cold shiver would go through your heart. You didn't know when it would be your turn. Maybe you would be punished because the doctors discovered you had smuggled a letter out to some visitors, or maybe because you had had an argument with the doctors or nurses. When they wanted to punish someone, the alarm outside the dormitory (in the dining room) would sound and several police would arrive at once, and tie you to the bed.

Another kind [of punishment] was injections. One kind was muscular injection and the other intravenous, which was much more painful. I saw some patients after intravenous injections, whose tongues were so swollen they bulged out of their mouths. After a few days of injections, their facial muscles were all stiff, their eyes fixed and staring. Their faces were like waxwork masks -- they couldn't turn their heads and would have to slowly turn their whole body if they wanted to look at something.”

The common theme of deliberate abuse of powerful drugs in order to cause suffering appears in this testimony as in most other victims’ accounts of their ordeals in Ankang institutions. In addition, this selection describes another commonly reported abuse – the use of electroshock “therapy” to torture inmates. This female dissident’s description of her experience again demonstrates the primary purpose of the Ankang – not heal but to maim, not to protect the public but to punish dissenters.

The two accounts included above were selected to serve as representative samples of the numerous available accounts precisely because they are neither remarkable nor unusually gruesome. The sadistic abuses detailed above were consistent across many testimonies collected by various human rights and news organizations. These were not isolated incidents, but rather calculated acts of evil endemic to a system specifically designed to use pseudo-psychiatry to break the wills and destroy the physical and mental wellbeing of individuals whom the CCP views as a threat.


The Ankang and Falun Gong

One of the largest groups currently being persecuted through the use of the Ankang network is Falun Gong, a religious discipline that is a politicized offshoot of Buddhism. Although the CCP now condemns the Falun Gong as an illegal, “evil cult,” it once took a very different stance. In fact, until the 1999 crackdown, Falun Gong was openly practiced and enjoyed wide popularity. In the years leading up to 1999, the Chinese government began to feel threatened by the popularity of Falun Gong, which provided its practitioners with a sense of higher morality above that dictated by the Communist Party. Gatherings of thousands of Falun Gong followers for joint exercises and meditation became commonplace. Fearing the kind of influence that such an organization could exert, the CCP began a campaign of harassment against followers of Falun Gong. On April 25th 1999 ten thousand Falun Gong practitioners staged a peaceful protest in Beijing in response to the persecution against them.[14] This resulted in an even harsher crackdown by the CCP, which subsequently declared Falun Gong an “evil cult”[15] and drastically stepped up efforts to eradicate it.  

Currently, practitioners of Falun Gong continue to face severe persecution by the state, and hundreds, or perhaps thousands are currently imprisoned. According to a 2002 Human Rights Watch report, a large number of the prisoners currently being held in the Ankang institutions are practitioners of Falun Gong. The report details numerous cases of brutal treatment of Falun Gong followers. An excerpt of the report describing a typical case follows:[16]

“Chen Zhong, male, 55 years old, detained at the Treatment Center for Mental Diseases in No. 102 Hospital, Changzhou, Jiangsu Province

On the afternoon of July 25, the local police and officers from the Civil Affairs Bureau asked Chen Zhong to go for interrogation. Without any due legal procedure, he was then taken to the Treatment Center for Mental Diseases in No. 102 Hospital, Changzhou, for examination. Without any attempt at disguise, they said, "If you continue to practice Falun Gong, we can make you crazy even if you are not." But he did not give in.

On the afternoon of September 28, again using interrogation as an excuse, the police took Chen Zhong to the Mental Hospital of the No. 3 People's Hospital in Wujin County. He was forcibly hospitalized and made to take medicines normally used for mental patients. Chen Zhong refused to take the medicine, so they proceeded to electrocute him. They later did so again (altogether five times) and then forced him to take the medicines. This went on for more than ten days.

In an audiocassette tape, he said,

I am feeling very cold as I only have a T-shirt on me. My family does not know my whereabouts. I do not have a change of clothes, nor can I shave. In fact, the hospital, which calls itself a "humanitarian hospital," is detaining many people who appealed to the government for various injustices they had received. This hospital is an even worse place than the [police] detentions centers, with many more cruel mental and physical tortures. I am a Falun Dafa practitioner and also a law-abiding citizen. I practice "Truthfulness, Compassion and Tolerance," which is beneficial to both the State and society. Why am I being treated like this?”



In 2012, The Guardian reported that in response to growing outrage over news leaking out about abusive psychiatric practices, the Chinese legislature passed a law allegedly intended to prevent people from being involuntarily committed and treated in psychiatric facilities. However, the provisions of the law are far less liberalizing than they might at first appear. Police still have the power to send individuals for diagnosis, and individuals deemed “a danger to [themselves] or others” can still be treated against their wills.[17] Given that dissidents imprisoned for political purposes are usually diagnosed as being criminally insane and a danger to the public, this provision protects the systematic abuse of psychiatry inherent in the Ankang system. Furthermore, there is no court oversight to ensure that the law is even properly enforced.[18]

The new law does give Chinese citizens the right to appeal if they feel that they have been wrongfully committed but this is hardly encouraging. The right to petition the government to seek redress for wrongs is enshrined in the Chinese Constitution, and yet many victims of the Ankang as well as other forms of government sanctioned oppression find themselves facing harsh punishments simply for exercising the rights guaranteed by their own laws. The right to demonstrate did not protect the protesters in Tiananmen Square; similarly, it seems unlikely that this new law will have a major impact on the human rights abuses occurring within the Ankang.  

In fact, in 2013, Chinese Human Rights Defenders reported that a worker named Xing Shiku has been held in a psychiatric hospital for over six years because he exercised his right to petition by “filing complains to the government about corruption and problems related to the privatization of the state-owned company where he worked.” Despite his wife’s repeated pleas for his release, the hospital has refused on the grounds that only the authorities could authorize his release. In the meantime, these same authorities continue to pay his hospital fees and have detained his wife repeatedly for continuing to petition about his case.[19] The Ankang system remains in use, serving as just one more weapon in the arsenal of tyranny that the Chinese Communist Party has at its disposal.

Because China has resolutely refused to allow outside authorities such as the World Psychiatric Association to inspect these prison hospitals, finding information on the Ankang is difficult. It is believed that there are currently at least 20 Ankang facilities in China.[20] Most of these prison hospitals are believed to have a capacity of about one thousand inmates, though some, such as the Tianjin facility can hold twice that number. The ultimate goal of the Chinese government is to “establish one Ankang center for every city in China with a population of one million or above.”[21]

[1] VI. The Ankang: China’s Special Psychiatric Hospitals. "Dangerous Minds. Web. <

[2] Nylander, Johan. "Dubious shrinks, political prisoners inside China's mental health care system." CNN. Cable News Network, 1 Jan. 1970. Web.

[3] VI. The Ankang: China’s Special Psychiatric Hospitals. "Dangerous Minds. Web. <

[4] Wang Wanxing Speaks Out About China's "Ankang" System”. Congressional-Executive Commission on China. Web.

[5] "China: Political Prisoner Exposes Brutality in Police-Run Mental Hospital | Human Rights Watch." China: Political Prisoner Exposes Brutality in Police-Run Mental Hospital | Human Rights Watch. Web. <

[6] "The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, UDHR, Declaration of Human Rights, Human Rights Declaration, Human Rights Charter, The Un and Human Rights." UN News Center. UN. Web. <>

[7] "Constitution Of The People's Republic Of China.", 4 Dec. 1982. Web. <>.

[8] IV. A Short Guide to Political Psychosis. "Dangerous Minds. Web. 9 June 2014. <

[9] "Mao Zedong: Biographical and Political Profile." Columbia University. Web. 1 Jan. 2014.

[10] Rights Defender Recounts Incarceration in Psychiatric Hospital." Human Rights In China. 11 Jan. 2012. Web.

[11] "Constitution Of The People's Republic Of China.", 4 Dec. 1982. Web. <>.

[12]  "The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, UDHR, Declaration of Human Rights, Human Rights Declaration, Human Rights Charter, The Un and Human Rights." UN News Center. UN. Web. <>

[13] VI. The Ankang: China’s Special Psychiatric Hospitals." Dangerous Minds. Web. <>.

[14] Introvigne, Massimo. "Falun Gong." Encyclopedia Britannica. Web.  <>.

[15] Huang, He. "Falun Gong is evil cult that hurts practitioners." Web.

[16] VIII. The Falun Gong: New Targets of Psychiatric Abuse." Dangerous Minds. Web. <

[17] "China passes mental health law: Long-awaited legislation aims to prevent people from being held in psychiatric facilities against their will." The Guardian 26 Oct. 2012: Print.

[18] China: End Arbitrary Detention in Mental Health Institutions: Rights Concerns Remain as First Mental Health Law Comes Into Effect." Human Rights Watch. 3 May 2013. Web. <

[19] China: End Arbitrary Detention in Mental Health Institutions: Rights Concerns Remain as First Mental Health Law Comes Into Effect." Human Rights Watch, 3 May 2013. Web. <

[20] "Contortions of Psychiatry in China." The New York Times, 25 May 2001. Web. . <

[21] VI. The Ankang: China’s Special Psychiatric Hospitals." Dangerous Minds. Web. <>.