(New York) - The World Psychiatric Association (WPA) moved too cautiously in addressing the issue of China's political use of psychiatric imprisonment, Human Rights Watch said today, reacting to the vote at the WPA's general assembly meeting in Yokohama, Japan.

On August 26, the WPA adopted a plan to have the group's executive committee determine members of a team to visit China to assess evidence that political and religious dissidents, labor activists and others are being detained in psychiatric institutions. The WPA team hopes to visit China and report back by May 2003.

Human Rights Watch had urged the WPA to adopt a strong resolution calling on China to cease psychiatric abuses and to fully cooperate with a WPA investigation, and warning that China's WPA membership was at stake if it did not adopt effective remedies.

"The WPA must play hardball in its talks with China on the terms of the mission," said Mike Jendrzejczyk, Washington director of the Asia division of Human Rights Watch. "A truly independent investigation would clearly be useful, but it can't be used by Beijing as a smoke screen for the abuses to continue."

Human Rights Watch said the effectiveness of the WPA's limited action would depend upon the composition of the working party, whether China would have any say in its composition, and whether its members would have complete, confidential and unrestricted access to psychiatric facilities and detainees.

The Yokohama delegation representing Britain's Royal College of Psychiatrists (RCP) had proposed that the WPA stand by the organization's Madrid Declaration of 1996 that prohibits a diagnosis of mental illness based on political or religious belief. But its motion that would have gone further in ensuring a completely independent mission was defeated. It abstained from the vote out of concern over the makeup of the mission.

"The prospects of getting unrestricted access to Chinese mental hospitals would be greater if the WPA had clearly indicated China risked losing its WPA membership if it didn't fully cooperate," said Jendrzejczyk.

According to "Dangerous Minds: Political Psychiatry in China Today and its Origins in the Mao Era," a recent report by Human Rights Watch and the Geneva Initiative of Psychiatry, China's use of psychiatric imprisonment goes back to the beginnings of the People's Republic. Although there had been a steady decline in numbers of commitments to police-run mental asylums throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, the numbers rose again after the crackdown on the Falun Gong spiritual group in July 1999.