ArticlesVol. 14, No. 1, Spring 2000

Judicial Psychiatry in China and its Political Abuses


During the 1970s and 1980s, reports that the security authorities in the Soviet Union were incarcerating substantial numbers of dissidents in mental asylums aroused widespread concern in the West. As the quantity and reliability of the documentary evidence and victim testimonies steadily increased, the issue of politically directed psychiatry in the Soviet Union quickly became, along with political imprisonment and the refusal of the authorities to allow Soviet Jews to emigrate, a third principal item of human rights contention in Soviet-Westem relations. By January 1983, a protracted campaign by Western psychiatric professional bodies and international human rights organizations led to a decision by the Soviet All-Union Society of Psychiatrists and Neuropathologists to withdraw from the World Psychiatric Association in order to avoid almost certain expulsion. It was not readmitted to the body until 1989, after several years of perestroika and the preliminary establishment of direct access by Western psychiatric delegations to Soviet forensic-psychiatric institutions and their alleged mentally ill political inmates. The subject of forensic psychiatry in China has thus far received little academic attention outside of China. A number of very detailed and informative studies of China’s general psychiatric and mental healthcare system have been written, but these have rarely addressed the legal or forensic dimension of the topic in significant depth. In particular, very little documentary or other evidence has hitherto come to light suggesting that abusive practices similar to those that occurred in the former Soviet Union might also have existed, or might even still be found, in China. The general assumption has therefore been that the Chinese authorities, despite their poor record in many other areas of human rights concern, have at least never engaged in the political misuse of psychiatry. This article seeks to challenge and correct that assumption.