China pays a ‘crazy’ cost for following Xi’s thoughts

There are instances in India of family members declaring someone as mentally ill and getting him locked up in a mental facility to grab his share in the family property. The Chinese Communist Party has very frequently used this stratagem against dissidents and protestors. Scholars have evolved the term “political psychiatry” for this abuse of a putative illness by a totalitarian state. Under the Chinese constitution, the judiciary is subservient to the People’s Congress and consequently, the hapless individual is denied recourse to justice even from the courts. Family members of the “troublemakers” become complicit in this atrocity because the activities of such persons, who are mostly activists, can attract adverse consequences from the state even for the family. Many news outlets including Radio France Internationale had reported that Feng Xiaoyan was detained in April 2020 for distributing pro-democracy leaflets. After a “chat” with her husband, the police released her. The man took her straight to a hospital where she was quickly diagnosed with schizophrenia even though her daughter vociferously objected to this diagnosis. “Political psychiatry” is usually a one-way street as the patient is continuously administered heavy doses of psychotropic drugs at the medical facility and soon she becomes a mental patient in reality.

Not following the party’s ideology down to the last dot and comma has been considered a mental illness in China since the days of Mao. The party promoted the concept of “mental hygiene” (jingshen weishang) implying that the individual should be free of any thought or behaviour that pollutes the ideology. This concept was given up by the psychiatrists in the West in the 1950s and was replaced by “mental health”, helped by the development of antipsychotic drugs. The transition was aided by the war-crimes trial of the Nazis where it was established that thought crimes and race of the victim were handy tools used by the Nazis for labelling someone with lack of mental hygiene. Yet, wherever Hitler was, Xi Jinping would not be left far behind. In 2012, with the advent of Xi at the helm of China, the Mental Hygiene Law (Jingshen weishan fa) was promulgated. The law aims at mobilising social forces to counter the danger posed by mental patients for the society. The law is a remedy to keep citizens disciplined and the rule of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) stable.

Even the nationalists, who had overthrown the last imperial dynasty of the Manchus, were enamoured with the idea of mind-control of the masses. Sun Yat-sen had said in 2018 that “the affairs of the nation are a manifestation of the collective psychology” and controlling the minds was the key to power. His successor, Chiang Kai-shek called for the “psychological reconstruction” of the masses to eliminate disunity and discord. Yet, it was left to Mao to give a sound foundation to this “psychiatry with Chinese characteristics”. In societies that have a blind belief in religious practices, psychiatric issues have been branded as the work of evil forces and the shamans have used rituals, often associated with cruelty to the victim, to exorcise these evils. In the heydays of Mao, the Little Red book of Mao’s Thoughts had replaced the scriptures and it maintained a hold over the minds of the masses, including professionals. This hold was stronger than any other blind belief in the history of mankind. Human Rights Watch has published a 1966 document of the CCP on the subject of mental illness. The Party psychiatrists record that they have been “conducting a major campaign to study the works of Chairman Mao, to learn from the People’s Liberation Army… and we have been greatly educated and inspired by this”. Then they “organized the patients into groups to study Chairman Mao’s teachings on the treatment and cure of disease, and this… relieved them of all kinds of psychological burdens.” They concluded that “Psychotherapy” was therefore a kind of ideological re-education” and issued directions to “Accord Mao Zedong Thought the commanding role at each and every stage in the process of treating mental illness”.

Readers will recall that the detention centres in Xinjiang – where up to a million Uighurs have been detained and tortured, and this includes rape and organ harvesting from some of the living prisoners – are officially called “re-education centres”. The question arises, even accepting everything that the Chinese say as correct, if ideological re-education is a cure for mental ailment, did all the million Uighurs suffer such mental disorders? Al Jazeera carried an article on November 28, 2018 with the title “For China, Islam is a ‘mental illness’ that needs to be ‘cured’”. The article says that this cure from the alleged mental illness called Islam was being attempted on up to 2 million Uighurs (out of a population of 11 million) in these re-education centres. Even the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination had said in its August 2018 report that two million Uighurs have been forced into “re-education camps for political and cultural indoctrination”. The only proof a detainee could give of having completed his re-education and having been cured of the mental illness was that he had renounced his faith and was willing to criticize that faith. Yet, even for the Han Chinese, the road to a mental asylum may be always around the corner. As the case of Feng shows, any protest or sign of dissidence is easily translated into a diagnosis of mental illness. Voice of America (VOA) News on September 30, 2020, carried an article “China uses mental illness to discredit, imprison dissidents, rights observers say” mentioning that China’s Ministry of Public Security has laid down that approval of the public security department is necessary for a mental hospital to accept a patient. It appears that the limited space in these facilities was being occupied by some of the non-dissidents who happened to be mental patients!

A discussion of mental health in the public space has been taboo in China since imperial times. In an article on December 21, 2020, “China long avoided discussing mental health. The pandemic changed that”, the New York Times said that, like Mao’s era when mental illness was called a bourgeois delusion, even today many people with mental illness are shunned or hidden at home. Yet, with a surge in such cases due to prolonged lockdowns or stay in difficult conditions at the quarantine centres, avoiding public discourse of the issue has become impossible. Hotlines had to be set up, seminars have been held and apps have been created for helping the patients. A side effect of the Covid has been large-scale unemployment among the youth leading to the recognition of an “unemployment complex syndrome”!

A forecast for China that is nothing short of dire has been adequately summed up by the respected journal Lancet in its June 11, 2022 issue in the article “Mental health after China’s prolonged lockdowns”. China has vigorously defended its zero-Covid policy even in the face of its criticism by a China-friendly World Health Organisation and nobody in China will question it for fear of being branded a dissident and ending up in a mental asylum. The article says, “…China’s lockdowns have had a huge human cost. This cost will continue to be paid in the future, with the shadow of mental ill-health adversely affecting China’s culture and economy for years to come”. Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s USSR, Kim’s North Korea, Castro’s Cuba, Pol Pot’s Cambodia, all paid a heavy cost for being ruled by a communist dictator; Xi’s China too cannot avoid it. 

Source : Daily World

The writer RN Prasher is a retired IAS officer of Haryana cadre | Personal Opinions

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