Eyewitness Testimonies from Notorious Ankang Asylum
November 3, 2005
Wang's release is welcome news, but it highlights the fate of hundreds of other political detainees forced into psychiatric care in China for no good medical reason. 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.
Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch

(New York) - After 13 years in a Chinese police-run mental asylum, dissident Wang Wanxing has been freed, Human Rights Watch said today. Wang had been forcibly held in a Beijing asylum for the criminally insane after staging a brief, one-man pro-democracy demonstration in Tiananmen Square on the eve of the third anniversary of the June 4, 1989 crackdown.

On August 16, Wang, 56, was discharged from the Beijing Public Security Bureau's Ankang Hospital for the Custody and Treatment of Mentally Ill Offenders, was driven under heavy police escort directly to Beijing Airport, and was put on a flight to Frankfurt, Germany, where his wife and daughter have been living as political refugees for the past few years.

Wang Wanxing's unexpected release from the police-run mental asylum and his enforced exile to Germany took place shortly before an official visit to Beijing by Louise Arbour, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights. The U.N.'s Special Rapporteur on Torture, Manfred Nowak, is also due to visit China later this month. Wang Wanxing is the first known released inmate of China's notorious Ankang system, out of an estimated 3,000 or more political detainees held in police-run psychiatric custody since the early 1980s, to have left China and be in a position to speak out about his experiences. However, according to Wang, the last thing one of the Beijing Ankang officials said to him before he boarded his flight to Germany was, “If you ever speak out about your experiences at our hospital, we'll come and bring you back here again.”

“Wang's release is welcome news, but it highlights the fate of hundreds of other political detainees forced into psychiatric care in China for no good medical reason,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “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.”

Wang told Human Rights Watch about the general conditions of his confinement at the Beijing Ankang asylum, and about how he and the other inmates were treated there. For the first seven years of his incarceration at the asylum, Wang was held in a general ward containing between 50 and 70 inmates. But during his final five years he was placed in a special ward containing similar numbers of severely psychotically-disturbed inmates, most of whom had committed murder. According to Wang, the extent of patient-on-patient violence in this ward was terrifying. He frequently had to force himself to stay awake all night to avoid sudden and unprovoked inmate attacks. In order to maintain his basic health and sanity, Wang used to take frequent brief catnaps throughout the day, and once a week or so, he would swallow several of the chlorpromazine tablets that he had saved in order to get at least one good night's rest.

Eyewitness to “sadistic” abuse

Although Wang had kind words to say about some of the doctors and nurses at the Beijing Ankang, he described others as being “basically sadistic” in nature. Almost every week, and sometimes several times a week, the staff would punish difficult or stubborn patients by tying them to a bed and administering painfully high levels of electric acupuncture treatment. All the other patients on the ward were ordered to watch the punishments being administered. For those patients who became physically desensitized after frequent punishment of this kind, the staff would rapidly alternate between low and high electric currents. According to Wang this method was as painful as prolonged exposure to a high current, and he once personally witnessed an inmate dying from a heart attack while being punished in this way.

On another occasion, Wang says he witnessed an inmate who had been arrested and admitted to the Ankang for persistent petitioning activities, and who had gone on a hunger strike to protest his incarceration, being tied to a bed on the ward and force-fed by other inmates at the direct orders of the nursing staff. Instead of using a feeding tube inserted through his mouth or nose, the inmates simply poured liquid food straight into the man's mouth. As a result he choked to death on the bed. There was no outside investigation of this clear case of death from unnatural causes. Instead, Wang learned that Ankang doctors and nurses––all serving PSB officers––filed a report stating that the man had suddenly died from a heart attack. No staff member was ever punished for either of the two fatal incidents.

“These reports are credible and disturbing,” said Adams. “China must cooperate with the World Psychiatric Association and allow independent access to all its psychiatric detention facilities to end this type of abuse.”

Wang Wanxing's case attracted widespread international attention and was the subject of numerous inquiries and statements of concern by the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture, various Western governments, and John Kamm of the Duihua Foundation, among others. As an internationally-known political detainee, Wang was treated relatively leniently, as the staff apparently feared that any severe ill-treatment would be reported in the international news media. Their anxiety was well justified. In 1993, a British television documentary team arranged for a Chinese woman from a European country to enter the Beijing Ankang on a monthly family visits day. Posing as one of Wang's relatives but carrying a concealed video recorder, she interviewed Wang on camera in a private meeting room in the asylum. A several-minute segment of the interview appeared on British television shortly before the International Olympic Committee meeting to decide on China's failed bid for the 2000 Olympics. When Wang informed the Ankang staff that the television interview had occurred, they dismissed his claim as providing further clear evidence of his alleged “delusional psychotic fantasies.”

Wang was briefly released from the Beijing Ankang in August 1999, but three months later, after he announced his intention to hold a press conference with foreign journalists to discuss his experiences in psychiatric detention, he was again detained and sent to the Beijing Ankang. During his long years of incarceration, Wang received personal visits from numerous other prominent Chinese dissidents, including Wang Dan, Jiang Qisheng, Li Hai, and Xu Yonghai.

Diagnosed with “political monomania” and drugged

Since his initial detention in June 1992, Chinese authorities have consistently maintained that Wang suffered from either “paranoid psychosis” or “political monomania”––the later condition is not found in any internationally recognized list of psychiatric illnesses. Officials at the Beijing Ankang asylum repeated the claim in a “Summary Medical Report” which they provided to the German government one week before his release in August. (See Appendix below for a full translation of the document.)

The medical report states that at the time of his release Wang was still suffering from these allegedly dangerous psychiatric conditions. While suggesting that he was otherwise quite normal, the report notes: “When the topic of conversation turns to politics… his [mental] activities are still characterized by delusions of grandeur, litigation mania, and a conspicuously enhanced pathological will.” (The label “litigation mania” is often applied by Chinese police psychiatrists to citizens who persistently lodge petitions or complaints with the authorities about their past experiences of political persecution.)

When interviewed by Human Rights Watch over a two-day period in September in Frankfurt, Wang spoke and acted lucidly and appeared to be in reasonably good psychological health, despite the appalling experience of being incarcerated for 13 years alongside genuinely mentally-disturbed criminal offenders, well over half of whom had committed murder or other violent acts.

At Wang's request, the Global Initiative on Psychiatry is currently arranging for him to be given an independent psychiatric medical examination in order to evaluate the Chinese authorities' consistent assertion that he was “dangerously psychiatrically disturbed” over the past 13 years.

Throughout his time at the Beijing Ankang, staff forced Wang to take chlorpromazine, a powerful antipsychotic drug, three times daily. The nursing staff would watch closely to ensure that he had swallowed the medication. Unable to cope with the severe mental and physical side effects, however, he developed a method of concealing the pills in his mouth until after the inspection and then secretly disposing of them.

The news of Wang Wanxing's release from the Beijing Ankang will be followed, in the November 3 issue of the German weekly Die Zeit by detailed interviews with two other former political inmates of China's police-run institutes for the criminally insane. One, rural rights activist Qiu Jinyou, was detained at the Hangzhou Ankang for 208 days and subjected to frequent physical and mental torture, in an effort by local police to make him reveal the names of fellow villagers engaged in a campaign he had been leading to expose financially corrupt activities by the local village leadership. The article also highlights the case of Meng Xiaoxia, a female shoe-factory worker. She was wrongfully incarcerated in the Xi'an Ankang for a total of 10 years after protesting at her employer’s failure to discipline a fellow worker, the son of the former factory director, who had beaten her unconscious.

Human Rights Watch urged the leaders of Britain, Germany, and Spain to raise the problem of political psychiatry with President Hu Jintao when Hu travels to Europe beginning November 8.

“As the truth begins to trickle out from victims and witnesses, China can no longer deny these gruesome practices,” said Adams. “It was political decisions that created this system and it will now take a political decision at the highest level to end this abominable practice."

BACKGROUND

Political Psychiatry in China

In a 298-page report published in August 2002 and titled Dangerous Minds: Political Psychiatry in China Today and its Origins in the Mao Era, Human Rights Watch and the Geneva Initiative on Psychiatry (since renamed the Global Initiative on Psychiatry) presented detailed evidence showing that, for the past several decades, Chinese police psychiatrists had been systematically misdiagnosing certain types of political dissidents, religious nonconformists, persistent complainers and petitioners, independent trade unionists, and “whistleblowers” against corruption, as being “dangerously mentally ill” and forcibly sending them to high-security mental asylums. Based on a large number of reports compiled from China's official literature on psychiatry and the law, the report by the two human rights groups estimated that at least 3,000 such people had encountered this treatment in China since the early 1980s alone. These practices closely parallel the widespread misuse of forensic psychiatry against sane dissenters that occurred in the Soviet Union from the 1950s onwards. (The full report is available at http://hrw.org/reports/2002/china02/.)

All staff at the Beijing Ankang, including medical and nursing personnel, are full-time officers in the Public Security Bureau, and all inmates are persons who have been detained for criminal offenses committed while allegedly under the influence of severe psychiatric illness. There are currently around 25 Ankang institutes for the criminally insane in China; the government's eventual plan is to build one Ankang for every city with a population of one million or higher. There are more than 70 cities of this size around the country. The name “Ankang” means “peace and health.”

Only a handful of foreigner observers have ever been allowed inside these high-security psychiatric facilities. In 1987, for example, a WHO-led delegation briefly visited the Tianjin Ankang. But the great majority of such facilities are strictly off-limits to outsiders of any kind, including Chinese. The Public Security Bureau acts as sole judge and jury over who is compulsorily admitted to Ankang custody, and inmates have no right of appeal or even of periodic medical review of their cases. According to Chinese authorities, the average length of stay in Ankang custody is five years. Many inmates are held for 20 years or more. According to Wang Wanxing, several of his fellow inmates at the Beijing Ankang had been there for 30 or 40 years. Moreover, these police-run institutions are subject to no outside scrutiny or supervision, either by the courts or by any other Chinese government agency. The names and current circumstances of most psychiatrically detained dissidents in China remain unknown.

Since mid-1999, the Chinese security authorities also have used forced psychiatric detention as a means of intimidating and punishing Falungong practitioners. Since 2001, a campaign within the international psychiatric community has urged an official investigation into allegations that sane political dissidents, whistleblowers, labor rights activists, and Falungong practitioners were forcibly held in psychiatric custody. The campaign culminated in a unanimous vote by the international membership of the World Psychiatric Association (WPA), at its triennial world congress in Yokohama in August 2002, instructing the WPA leadership to send an official delegation to China to investigate.

After months of negotiations with the Chinese government and the Chinese Society of Psychiatrists (CSP), the WPA's president, Ahmed Okasha, indicated in April 2004 that China had effectively slammed the door on the project. (As the US journal Psychiatric News reported on August 6, 2004: “Several days before [the WPA mission] was to start, the CSP sent Okasha a letter in which it indicated that it was, at the Chinese government's insistence, postponing indefinitely acting on its earlier agreement to participate in a visit from WPA members, since the visit was to be more investigative than educational.”) Then in May that year, the WPA leadership undermined all its previous efforts by signaling that, since the CSP had lately agreed to acknowledge that “some misdiagnosis and mistreatment” of patients had taken place, no WPA investigative mission to China would henceforth be necessary. The world body reached this conclusion without a single WPA official having even stepped inside one of China's 25 or so Ankang facilities, let alone having medically examined any one of their known political inmates.

Considerable international diplomatic pressure has been brought to bear on the issue. Wang Wanxing's name figured prominently on lists of Chinese political and religious prisoners that various Western governments were urging the Chinese authorities to set free or provide current information about. And, in the course of her visit to Beijing in August 2005, Louise Arbour, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, is believed to have raised the issue of China's increasing misuse of forensic psychiatric diagnosis against dissidents and others.

Over the past decade, the Chinese government has periodically released some of the named political and religious dissidents individuals, but until August, all were sent into exile in the United States. In addition to being the first known political inmate of China's Ankang system ever to have been freed and sent into exile overseas, Wang is believed to be the first Chinese political dissident of any kind whom Beijing has exiled to a European country since June 1989.

The Die Zeit Interviews

As mentioned above, the November 3 edition of Die Zeit magazine will present detailed interviews with two other recent political victims of China's Ankang system. Along with Wang Wanxing's personal account, the stories of the terrifying ordeals undergone by Qiu Jinyou and Meng Xiaoxia in Ankang custody are the first eyewitness testimonies of conditions in China's police-run institutes for the criminally insane ever to be published outside of China. With Die Zeit's permission, we conclude by presenting two brief extracts from the magazine's unedited interviews with Qiu and Meng:

* Qiu Jinyou was frequently subjected to electric shock treatment by officials at the Hangzhou Ankang, in an effort to make him reveal the names of fellow petitioners against corruption in his village. As a result of the frequent psychiatric medication he was given, Qiu said that his hair began falling out and he suffered from spasms and tremors, nervous despair, memory loss and forgetfulness, food intolerance, and other such symptoms. “The Communists are cruel. Inside the Ankang, there is nothing but terror and fear,” said Mr. Qiu. “Not even the murderers there were treated as harshly as inmates of my category - people who had filed complaints or petitions with the authorities. During my time in the Ankang, I was tortured three to four times a week. I thought I was going to die there.”

* Ms. Meng Xiaoxia detailed for the first time the system of punishment and forced medication in the Xi'an Ankang. She was forcibly held there for altogether 10 years, without even once receiving a medical or psychiatric examination. She was given electric shock treatment, with electrodes placed on her forehead, on three occasions, and she was also subjected to insulin coma therapy - a treatment that is elsewhere almost unknown today due to its dangerous side effects. More generally, Ms. Meng described everyday life in the Ankang as being one where inmates endured severe punishments on an almost routine basis, creating an atmosphere of constant fear and anguish among them. “The Ankang is like hell,” Ms. Meng says. “I would rather die than go there again.”

APPENDIX Summary Medical Record

Wang Wanxing, male, 56 years old, of Han ethnicity, married, a lower middle-school graduate, of peasant origin, no religious faith. He was admitted to the hospital on 30 June 1992. Diagnosis upon admission: Paranoia.

During his 13 years of hospitalization, the patient has been medicated with drugs of the chlorpromazine group, and also with niuhuang to stabilize his overall condition. At present, he interacts fairly well with others, his mood is stable, and he obeys the staff. He enjoys listening to the radio and reading books, shows concern toward his fellow patients, and actively participates in work and recreational activities.

When the topic of conversation turns to politics, he displays impairments of thought association and of mental logic. His systematic delusions have shown no conspicuous improvement since he was first admitted to the hospital, and his [mental] activities are still characterized by delusions of grandeur, litigation mania, and a conspicuously enhanced pathological will.

The patient's physical condition is generally acceptable. Blood pressure 120/80 mm Hg; no discernible rales [gurgling sound] in either lung; heart beat 78/second, heart rhythm normal; abdomen soft, with no pain response when pressure applied or released; limbs and spine movement normal. Inspection of the nervous system indicates no obvious abnormalities; blood tests normal on 20 various counts; electrocardiogram result normal; chest X-ray reveals no conspicuous problems; all biochemical tests more or less normal.

The patient is currently being prescribed a daily dosage of [figure illegible] mg chlorpromazine, taken in the evening, and two tablets of niuhuang per day, taken in the morning. We recommend that this treatment regime be continued, and that the patient be kept under strict guardianship.

[Official Seal:] Beijing Municipal Ankang Hospital - Medical Section

11 August 2005

Chlorpromazine (also known as thorazine) is an antipsychotic medication.

More reporting on: