Written by Aparajitha Suresh
Forensic Psychiatry is a legal tool that allows courts to evaluate whether a suspected criminal has the mental capacity to go to trial. You’ve probably heard of the infamous ‘not guilty by reason of insanity’ plea before – probably while binge watching Law and Order: SVU at 2 AM on a Tuesday night — but what many people fail to realize is just how important this course of study actually is.
At its core, forensic psychiatry presents an extremely useful mechanism by which governments can legally differentiate between criminals who break the law with full sanity and those who break the law because they lack sanity. Unfortunately, it also possesses an inherent capacity for abuse. Specifically, by diagnosing as mentally ill, governments are able to incarcerate suspects in a mental institution for an indefinite period of time and administer treatment as they see fit. Thus, under the guise of protecting society, countless governments have covertly misemployed forensic psychiatry as a tool to silence dissenters. This abuse is particularly prevalent in modern authoritarian regimes, such as the USSR, Cuba, and most recently, the People’s Republic of China.
Since the Tiananmen Square Protests of 1989, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has strived to maintain social stability at any cost. However, as the nation’s GDP growth tapers off, many social issues have suddenly come to light. Such sudden re-exposure to inequality, pollution, corruption, and similar social issues has sparked a significant increase in domestic unrest, resulting in almost 500 protests everyday. Hence, with instability at an all-time-high, the CCP has been forced to respond more frequently and aggressively to maintain stability. While the CCP usually responds by either (1) arresting dissenters or (2) yielding to their requests, recently, it has employed another tactic: (3) wrongly incarcerating for mental illness –or, in other words, the blatant abuse of forensic psychiatry.
Although (3) violates myriad international ethical standards (as well as the basic human rights of the Chinese people) it also presents an ideal response for the CCP. Obviously, unlike (2) “yields to dissenters’ requests,” the CCP can avoid the role of the weaker player. More importantly, however, is that (3) “incarcerating for mental illness” allows the Party to silence dissenters more conclusively than mere (1) “imprisonment.” As NYU CAMS Student Ben Kaplan explained, “When a dissenter is jailed, his words and actions still hold true, and can even exert undesirable influence on the population. But when a dissenter is instead labeled as ‘insane’, he completely loses credibility in the public eye. Every past, present and future action of his is discredited. He’s absolutely powerless.”
Unfortunately, given the clandestine nature of this abuse, little data is available. But as of 2005, at least 3,000 political dissenters were incarcerated against their will for non-DSM (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association) recognized diagnoses such as “Political Maniacs” (zhenghzhi fengzi), “Petitioners” (shangfangzi) and “evil-cult induced mental disorder” (xiejao suo zhi jingshen zhang’ai). Many of these dissenters were even forcibly administered central nervous system damaging drugs and electroshock therapy.
Despite this horrific display of human rights abuse, it seems that even China’s medico-science elite have fallen prey to the CCP’s rendition of the Salem Witch Trials. When asked his opinion of these wrongful incarcerations, Dr. Yu of the Shanghai Mental Health Center clearly stated, “If a person is a danger to society, then it is reasonable for the CCP to incarcerate him… keeping these dissenters in society will inhibit the progression of Chinese economic and social development… they deserve to be incarcerated for endangering our society.”
With a population of over 100 million mentally ill people, of which at least 20% pose a direct threat to society, the CCP undoubtedly has valid and often necessary reasons for incarcerating its constituents. However, in wrongfully utilizing forensic psychiatry as a tool to incarcerate thousands of political dissenters, the CCP has breached its Social Contract with the very people it claims to serve, endangering not only its legitimacy but also the basic trust of the Chinese people.