China’s Psychiatric Terror


At its triennial congress in Yokohama last September, the World Psychiatric Association (WPA) overwhelmingly voted to send a delegation to China to investigate charges that dissidents were being imprisoned and maltreated as “political maniacs” both in regular mental hospitals and in police-run psychiatric custodial institutions known as the Ankang. (The word literally means “Peace and Health.”)

The WPA’s vote was a direct result of Dangerous Minds, written for Human Rights Watch and the Geneva Initiative on Psychiatry by Robin Munro, and one of the most revealing books about China in many years. Many of the leading figures in the WPA acknowledge that Munro’s ground-breaking research lies behind the association’s negotiations with Chinese psychiatrists over the last year and its decision to send a delegation to China. What Mr. Munro’s eloquent and convincing study reveals is that from the 1950s onward not only Chinese dissidents but people who submitted petitions to the authorities have been detained by the police, examined by psychiatrists, and found to be criminally insane—or, if found mentally “normal,” designated as criminals to be cast into the prison system.

Once in China the members of the WPA delegation intend to visit several of the secret Ankang mental hospitals where dissidents are confined—they are in more than a dozen large cities—and to form their own professional judgments of the conditions of the inmates. It would be useful, although it is unlikely to happen, if the delegation were able to come face to face with some of the inmates described in Munro’s book.

The Chinese Society of Psychiatrists (CSP) is a member of the WPA, which represents psychiatric organizations in 119 countries, with 150,000 psychiatrists. China is bound, in principle, to adhere to the articles of the association’s 1996 Madrid Declaration, which forbids introducing political judgments in psychiatric diagnosis.

But a question immediately arises: Will this Western-dominated medical association, which has been mainly concerned with professional standards and behavior, be any match for an authoritarian government that puts security, order, and secrecy before human rights? Both the WPA’s past president, Juan Lopez-Ibor, in his visit to China last February, and the vote last September in Yokohama made it plain to Beijing that psychiatrists throughout the world want the WPA to conduct a thorough investigation of the allegations of psychiatric abuse. But in its official statements about contacts with Beijing the association is proceeding cautiously, if not timidly. It is essentially limiting the concerns of what the CSP calls its “educational” visit next year to China to treatment of the members of Falun Gong, the religious and meditative group that since 1991 has been proscribed as criminal. Its members, when imprisoned, are often treated as criminally insane.1

The WPA’s self-imposed limitation ignores the hundreds of political dissidents who are confined in the Ankang psychiatric hospitals run by the public security organs and who are the main subject of Munro’s book. The psychiatrists who staff these institutions, Dangerous Minds shows, tend to assume that their patients are mad because…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.