China's 'Political Lunatics'

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"Judicial Psychiatry in China and Its Political Abuses" by Robin Munro, in Columbia Journal of Asian Law (Spring 2000), Columbia Law School, Rm. 116, 435 W. 116th St., New York, N.Y. 10027. Available online at

Beijing’s two-year-old campaign to crush the Falun Gong spiritual movement has focused fresh attention on the Chinese regime’s misuse of forensic psychiatry to suppress dissent. The abusive practice has been going on for decades in China, perhaps even to a greater extent than it did in the Soviet Union, writes Munro, a senior research fellow at the University of London.

Soon after the Communist regime was established in 1949, at a time when political and religious dissent in the Soviet Union was beginning to be blamed on mental illness, Soviet-style forensic-psychiatric assessment centers were set up in Beijing, Shanghai, and other cities. By the early 1960s, if not before, Chinese leaders were aware of how the Soviets conducted political psychiatry, and very similar cases in China from that period later came to light.

As the Cultural Revolution (1966–76) unfolded, Munro says, "the distinction between political crime and mental illness—one that had apparently been tenuous even at the best of times—was effectively abandoned." Until about 1978, two years after dictator Mao Zedong’s death, the situation in China, he notes, was much like that in Europe in the Middle Ages: "The political or religious dissenter was viewed as being possessed by a deeply wicked, or ‘counterrevolutionary,’ form of madness, [while] the genuinely mentally ill were all too often condemned and punished as dangerous political subversives." A limited-circulation official Chinese report in 1981 stated that "numerous cases have been discovered of people who were obviously mentally ill but who were wrongfully imprisoned or even executed as ‘political lunatics.’ " But many Chinese who were arrested after shouting banned political slogans were suspected of mental illness—and then feigned the symptoms to avoid being

executed, according to a former political prisoner who spent more than 16 years in various labor camps, detention centers, and prisons for the "mentally disordered." He himself, after his arrest in 1969, declared that he was quite sane—and just because he did not feign mental illness, his warders, using Catch-22 logic, regarded him as indisputably insane.

In 1979, " ‘in the interests of revolutionary humanism,’" 4,600 mentally ill prisoners (by official count) were released. Many of them were older than 80, and one-third had spent 10 years or more in prison. The Chinese authorities, says Munro, concluded that henceforth such " ‘political lunatics’ " should be "placed in police-run psychiatric custody, rather than in regular prisons as before."

The abuse of forensic psychiatry has continued, albeit, official accounts indicate, at a much reduced level. A 1987 study at one mental hospital—the same one where a Falun Gong adherent recently died, reportedly from ill treatment— found that seven percent of the "patients" had been institutionalized for "antisocial political speech and action," down from 54 percent in 1977. Still, Munro conservatively estimates that Chinese forensic psychiatric examiners have seen more than 3,000 "political" cases over the past two decades, with the great majority of the individuals then being put in some form of forced psychiatric custody and treatment. That total is well over the several hundred confirmed (and highly publicized) cases of such abuse in the Soviet Union during the 1970s and 1980s.


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