Psychiatrists to investigate China allegations

World association is told dissidents hospitalized


BEIJING - The world's leading psychiatric association voted yesterday to send a delegation of experts to China to look into charges that Chinese psychiatric hospitals are being used to silence political and religious dissidents.

Officials of the World Psychiatric Association, which is meeting in Yokohama, Japan, said that Chinese health officials had been cooperative. A preliminary fact-gathering delegation is scheduled to travel to China next spring.

But the resolution fell far short of steps proposed by human rights advocates and some psychiatrists, who insist that systematic psychiatric abuses in China are rampant, perhaps even more severe and widespread than they were in the former Soviet Union.

A resolution proposed by Britain's Royal College of Psychiatrists demanded a more independent commission and urged the association to consider barring the Chinese Psychiatric Association if evidence of abuse were found.

"The decision is very disappointing," said Robin Munro, a human rights scholar whose research on psychiatric abuse in China largely brought the topic onto the agenda this year. "The WPA is sidelining itself and tarnishing its own reputation."

Whether China routinely uses its psychiatric hospitals to imprison political or religious troublemakers has lately been a subject of debate, with international experts holding wildly divergent opinions.

That debate has taken on a particular urgency in the past two years, with repeated charges that members of the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement have been committed to institutions not because they are mentally ill, but because they hold unconventional beliefs.

Munro's recent report catalogs numerous tales of Falun Gong members in psychiatric hospitals receiving powerful medicines and electroshocks. Falun Gong says that more than 300 members have been committed and a few have died during the hospitalizations.

But Dr. Arthur Kleinman, a psychiatrist at Harvard University who has spent decades collaborating with his Chinese counterparts, said the current charges are groundless. He said that while the psychiatric commitment of troublemakers was common in the Mao years, it was extremely rare today.

"There is no systematic abuse by the state," he said in a phone interview. "We're talking about problems with a small number of psychiatrists at a small number of hospitals that have been suborned by the police."

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