Soviet-style psychiatry is alive and well in the People's Republic
D. Lyons

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The involuntary committal to psychiatric institutions of political dissenters has long been associated with the abuses of psychiatric practice perpetrated in the former Soviet Union. The detention of dissenters may be based upon psychiatric judgement but political factors are relevant when such abuse becomes widespread. International concern has been growing following the decision of the Chinese Government to outlaw the practice of Falun Gong and forcibly to assign psychiatric treatment to practitioners of this meditative discipline. Falun Gong, also known as Falun Dafa, was banned in July 1999 following its declaration by Chinese authorities as a religious cult in passive rebellion to the Government. Falun Gong is a traditional spiritual discipline that has its roots in ancient Chinese culture. It draws on Buddhism, Taoism and the traditional Chinese doctrine of Qigong and involves gentle exercise and meditation. The crackdown against even private practice of the meditative exercise has resulted in over 600 detentions in psychiatric hospitals, where sedative and antipsychotic medications have been routinely and forcibly administered, along with electroconvulsive therapy (Ahmad, 2000) in an attempt to make practitioners renounce their beliefs. Amnesty International is concerned that such forced incarceration will escalate as the authorities attempt to discredit Falun Gong and to brand its practitioners as ‘ crazy’. The spurious diagnosis of ‘Qigong-induced mental disorder’ has even been described by some Chinese psychiatrists who claim obsessional symptoms, paranoid ideation, anxiety and depression as its core features. Other human rights violations, such as torture and ill treatment in custody, have resulted in a mounting death toll, currently standing at 77 according to Amnesty International (2001).

Attempts have been made this year by the American Psychiatric Association's Committee on the Abuse of Psychiatry and Psychiatrists to encourage the World Psychiatric Association to undertake a review of these alleged wrongful detentions. The failure of even a proportion of Chinese psychiatrists to function within an articulated ethical framework along generally acknowledged international standards diminishes all of us practising in the arena of mental health.