Drugged and shackled in Chinese detention – an old column from 2002

Drugged and shackled in Chinese detention – an old column from 2002

Ni Yulan has been continuously harassed and persecuted for her rights activism. She was imprisoned later in 2002 and was tortured in jail – leaving her permanently disabled. In April this year, she and her husband were evicted from their home, and they are now camping outside a Beijing police station.

This is my column from the new defunkt HKiMail in August 2002

Ni Yulan looks and sounds like an ordinary Beijing citizen. Her home is a neatly kept, small brick house in a shabby and fast-disappearing hutong. She displays measures of stoicism, indignation and wry wit as she tells her story.

A slight but tough woman in her forties, only an occasional shortness of breath and slight slurring of words provide clues to the mental and physical ordeal she’s been through. At no point does she espouse any radical political ideas or appear anything other than rational.And yet, Ni Yulan could so very easily have ended up in a mental hospital.

The nightmare began on April 27 this year when one of her neighbours was arrested for resisting eviction and demolition orders. Ni decided to take a photograph of the incident. But around a dozen police jumped on her as soon as she pulled out her camera. She was taken to the local police station, where she was beaten so severely that the police later took her to a hospital for a CT scan.

“After I was beaten I could not urinate and was really bloated,” she recalls.

“I could hardly move but they marched me to the hospital with handcuffs and shackles on my feet.”

Ni was detained without charge for 75 days. Long enough for the bruises to fade, she says. That in itself is illegal but one of the most worrying aspects of her case is that police guards told her that her injuries were caused by psychological problems.

She was given drugs that made her feel disoriented, hazy and light-headed. Ni became suspicious and stopped taking them after the guards refused to tell her the names of the drugs.

“I would take them and spit them out into some toilet paper,” she says.

Later she was called into a room where two people she later discovered were doctors, began asking her questions:

Is there any history of mental illness in your family?
Are you an extreme kind of person? Do you always insist on having your way?
What kind of relations do you have with your colleagues, your family?
Why did you beat up the police and inflict injuries upon yourself?

Ni explained she had never suffered from any mental problems and had always got on perfectly fine with everyone around her. She also explained that it would have been impossible for her to beat up more than a dozen police officers and that she was the one who had been assaulted.

It was only after the interrogation, that Ni found out she had been given a psychiatric examination. Luckily she was deemed sane, “but they had already told everyone, my colleagues, friends and neighbours, that I had become insane”.

For Ni Yulan, it had been a near miss. But according to a report by Human Rights Watch and the Geneva Initiative on Psychiatry (GIP), up to 15 per cent of people being held in mental institutions in the mainland could be political dissidents, labour activists or Falun Gong practitioners.

Or they might just be ordinary citizens who end up on the wrong side of local officials; citizens like Ni Yulan. They could just be people complaining about a leaky roof, says Robert Van Voren of the GIP.

That such practices can take place is due in no small part to a tradition of forensic psychiatry that China imported from the former Soviet Union in the 1960s. The report quotes from a 1994 mainland textbook that describes a condition called political mania, in which an individual suffers from delusions relating to the state and its policies.

These concepts are at odds with mainstream psychiatry in China, which is trying to improve popular understanding of mental health and remove social stigma from illness. The World Psychiatry Association, meeting in Yokohama this week, refused to censure Beijing but agreed to send an investigation team to China for talks.

According to the WPA president, Beijing has indicated that it is willing to co-operate.

If this is the case, China could make an important first step by dismantling another Cold War relic.

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