Mental Health Law
A Chongqing man whose employers had declared insane has won a 13-year court battle to have the decision overturned. What consequences will this landmark case have?
After a 13-year campaign against his being certified insane, Zhou Rongyan, 44, was finally declared sane on October 17. Zhou received 200,000 yuan (US$31,500) in compensation for mental damages and back pay from his former employer, its supervising agency and the hospital that declared him insane in 1998. Zhou called his victory a “triumph for the rule of law.”
Now in his forties, Zhou has lost the vigor of his youth and is gray-haired, his face careworn, the result of 93 days’ incarceration in a mental hospital followed by 13 years of wandering, during which he repeatedly petitioned various government agencies to declare him sane. Zhou described his experience to NewsChina as like “being sent to the crematory while still alive.” Now, while Zhou believes his persecutors have “finally learned a lesson,” he has vowed to continue his fight to bring criminal charges against the people and organizations involved in his incarceration and subsequent inability to live a normal life.
When Zhou Rongyan was committed to the Jieshi Mental Hospital in the city of Chongqing’s Ba’nan District at the end of 1998, none of his family members were informed. It was not until his half brother Fan Jianhong got a phone call from one of Zhou’s friends, Hu Zhongrong, the neighbor of an odd-job man at the mental hospital, that the family knew Zhou had been committed against his will.
“Zhou is in now imprisoned in the Jieshi Hospital and wants you to rescue him,” Hu told Fan.
Zhou had just turned 31 that year, and had worked at the Agriculture Bureau of Ba’nan District for seven years after graduating college in 1991. Prior to his incarceration, Zhou had just been transferred to the bureau’s Rural Business Management (RBM) station, one of the few college graduates assigned there.
Living in a temporary dormitory, Zhou was applying, like many of his colleagues, to purchase a newly-built cut-price apartment, a form of welfare offered to government employees at the time. However, the leaders of the station favored the division of single-family apartments into shared accommodation to save money and squeeze more personnel into a smaller space. Zhou thought the apartments should be sold as suites, not as individual rooms, with preferential treatment for senior staff with a higher level of education. He began to argue that his leaders’ approach ran counter to official worker housing policy at the time, finally sending a strongly worded letter to the local disciplinary committee, reporting the activities of his leaders.
Shortly after sending the letter, Zhou heard that he was being sued for libel. The local court, however, threw the case out due to lack of evidence, and Zhou believed that would be the end of the matter. However, on the morning of September 17, he received a subpoena from the Ba’nan District Court, requiring him to submit to a psychiatric assessment by a court-appointed doctor. Knowing himself to be of sound mind, Zhou ignored the subpoena. Within days, a squad of bailiffs and representatives from the Agriculture Bureau came to his dormitory, looking for him. Terrified he might be “disappeared,” Zhou went into hiding, and began to petition the Chongqing Intermediate Court, the National People’s Congress, the People’s Supreme Court and the General Office of the State Council to intervene, to no avail.
At the end of his rope, Zhou came back at the end of 1998 to the Agriculture Bureau of Ba’nan District, to attempt to explain himself. However, in a matter of minutes, he was bundled into a van and transported to Jieshi Mental Hospital, where he was promptly diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, and forcibly committed to a residential ward.
However, the diagnosis, as indicated by Zhou’s medical records, was largely based on the testimony of Tang Ruxue, one of the three directors of the local RBM station. “Zhou has a 10-year history of psychosis, with symptoms including insomnia and gibbering fits… He always believes his superiors and colleagues are trying to persecute him and keeps lodging complaints against them,” ran Tang’s statement. A psychiatric review by the Chongqing Forensic Injury Institute, an institution not qualified to diagnose psychiatric illness, dated December 29, 1998, also declared that Zhou suffered from “personality disorder” and “delusional psychosis,” adding that he “had no capacity to assume responsibility for his actions.”
“It was like the end of the world,” Zhou Rongyan told our reporter, describing the hospital. The walls were about 20 feet high, topped with broken glass, and the corridors caked with feces and urine. Zhou was terrified of the other patients, many of whom suffered from severe psychosis. He was forced to take pills which induced fits of trembling three times a day before meals. He was not permitted to contact his family to tell them where he was, and it was simply blind luck that enabled contact with them through the hospital’s odd-job man, Hu Zhongrong’s neighbor.
Finally informed about Zhou’s situation, Fan Jianhong contacted the hospital and managed to negotiate a transfer for his half-brother to the nearby Minkang Mental Hospital, using the excuse that it was closer to their home. There, Zhou’s mother was permitted to visit and care for her son. At the end of January 1999, Zhou was finally granted parole to “spend Spring Festival at home.”
Having secured his release, Zhou began a relentless campaign to have himself declared sane. He first went to the Forensic Identification Center of West China Medical University (which merged with Sichuan University in 2000) in Chengdu and underwent a psychiatric evaluation that found no evidence of mental illness. Zhou sent a copy of the diagnosis to Minkang Mental Hospital, the Agriculture Bureau and the Ba’nan District Court. The hospital merely responded with a request that Zhou’s family bring him back for re-commitment, threatening that if they did not, hospital orderlies would “come and get the madman.” Afraid for his and his family’s safety, Zhou once again became a fugitive, never staying in one place for longer than five days and eating only one meal a day.
Meanwhile, Zhou’s former employer announced the suspension of his salary. In 2000, the Ba’nan District Court, based on Zhou’s initial psychiatric report, declared that Zhou had “lost the capacity to conduct himself in a civilized manner.” Zhou continued to petition various government bureaus, seeking help from as many people as possible. He told our reporter he put his faith in “people’s good conscience.” He didn’t return home to Ba’nan until 2005. This time, however, he brought the media.
Accompanied by a journalist from a national-level media outlet, Zhou began a public campaign against the judgment passed by the Ba’nan District Court in 2000. He asserted that the evaluation was groundless because the Ba’nan trial had involved no court hearings nor cited a legitimate psychiatric report. His efforts began to pay off in 2005 when the Chongqing High Court decided that the verdict was improper and suggested that it be “corrected.”
However, this “correction” took more than two years, meaning Zhou didn’t receive a formal reprieve until January 2008, following which he had to wait another two years before he could receive compensation for the loss of earnings and mental anguish endured during his years as a fugitive.
Despite these delays, the unprecedented overturning of Zhou’s diagnosis was revolutionary enough to be described by the Supreme People’s Procuratorate, a branch of China’s State judiciary, as “having legislative significance.” In recent years, cases of individuals misdiagnosed as “mentally ill” and forcibly hospitalized have come to light when the involvement of certain special interests has been exposed by the media.
Conservative estimates from the business news periodical Caixin Century have indicated that as many as 50 percent of institutionalized mental patients in China may have been committed against their will, with an estimated 300,000 such cases in 2008 alone. It is impossible to estimate how many of these people have been institutionalized merely for being a nuisance to their employers or to local government officials, however the landmark ruling in Zhou’s case and the resulting draft law could finally lead to the release of these prisoners of conscience from China’s mental hospitals.
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Badeling Pass | Beijing
Sep 2011 | Submitted by Brian Snelson
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