The abuse of psychiatry for political purposes has a long and sad history. Defining dissidents as “mentally ill” allows political authorities to evade many of the legal protections built into criminal codes, and oppressive governments have rarely hesitated to use that shortcut when convenient. Such abuses were commonplace in the Soviet Union; tragically, they appear to be continuing in China today. There are measures that can be used to block this behavior, but success depends on vigilance by the rest of the international community. A test case occurred late last month in Yokohama; thus far, the response has been lukewarm.

According to a recent report by Human Rights Watch, an international human rights group, and the Geneva Initiative on Psychiatry, China is using psychiatry to have political opponents declared insane. The evidence, based on Chinese psychiatric archives, reveals “a long-standing record of the misuse of psychiatry for politically repressive purposes, one that resembles in all key respects that of the former Soviet Union.” The authors conclude that as many as 15 percent of people held in Chinese mental institutions may be political prisoners, a designation that includes labor activists and other individuals who complain of political persecution.

The situation has worsened in recent years mainly because of the Chinese government’s response to the Falun Gong spiritual group, a quasi-religious organization that claims to have tens of millions of members in China. The group’s resilience in the face of a harsh crackdown by the Beijing government — and the international attention that has focused on the group as a result – has spurred the Chinese leadership to use more creative methods of suppression. The group was labeled “an evil cult” and banned in 1999. Since then, more than 300 detained members of Falun Gong have reportedly been detained in psychiatric institutions. This surge, writes the report’s authors, is proof of the abuse of psychiatry to suppress dissent. In addition to detaining individuals, the report alleges that the Chinese government has forced individuals without mental problems to take psychiatric drugs and be subjected to electroshock treatment.

Similar charges have been leveled by U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson. During her visit to China last month, she pointed to the detention of Falun Gong members in psychiatric wards as a continuing problem. She also said U.N. officials have had difficulty getting permission to investigate the alleged abuses.

China denies the accusations. According to the Chinese Foreign Ministry, the charge that large numbers of political opponents have been hospitalized “have absolutely no basis in fact and are extremely irresponsible.” Instead, Chinese mental hospitals were subject to strict management and had rigorous admissions procedures that would check such practices. When asked about Falun Gong, the ministry spokesman said members were committed at their families’ request, and only after a doctor had found signs of mental illness. Of course, the Beijing government’s definition of mental illness in political terms — “an unhealthy belief” — is disingenuous at best.

China has made no secret of its attempt to convince the Chinese people and the world that Falun Gong is dangerous. Its propaganda campaign uses photographs and other accounts as “evidence” to demonstrate that alleged members are insane and a menace to themselves and society.

There is at least one way to confirm the truth of the allegations — or China’s denials: China could open its mental hospitals to international inspections. The World Psychiatric Association, which represents professional groups from over 100 nations, has adopted a motion calling on China to accept an independent fact-finding mission. Beijing’s failure to accept foreign scrutiny could lead to its expulsion from the group. That last occurred in 1983 when the Soviet Union withdrew under similar accusations. Reportedly, China has agreed to an “educational” visit by the WPA, but it has not yet officially commented on the motion. WPA President Juan J. Lopez-Ibor said he discussed the possibility of an investigation with Chinese Deputy Minister of Health Ma Xiaowei earlier this year.

Action by the WPA is not enough; the rest of the world must also raise its voices to protest Chinese behavior. China’s past behavior has shown that Beijing is acutely sensitive to large-scale protests, and that this sensitivity will increase with the approach of the 2008 Olympic Games, to be held in Beijing. This is an opportunity to nudge China into greater compliance with international norms — norms that China endorsed when it joined the United Nations. China has an easy way to silence the brewing storm: It should open the doors of its mental hospitals and let the world see what is going on inside.

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