The World Psychiatric Association (WPA) and the Chinese Society of
Psychiatrists (CSP) came to an agreement in May on a response to allegations
from around the world that the Chinese government used the psychiatric
establishment to punish members of Falun Gong for their cultural and political
Harold Eist, M.D., was one of the WPA negotiators who worked on the
agreement concerning Falun Gong abuse charges with the Chinese Society of
After meeting in New York in May during APA's annual meeting, WPA President
Prof. Ahmed Okasha and CSP President Prof. Donfeng Zhou issued a joint
statement saying that the WPA acknowledges that the CSP has cooperated in a
three-year investigation of alleged psychiatric abuses of Falun Gong members
who were sent to Chinese psychiatric hospitals and clinics.
The CSP's investigation identified "instances in which some Chinese
psychiatrists failed to distinguish between spiritual-cultural beliefs and
delusions, as a result of which persons were misdiagnosed and
Rodrigo Muñoz, M.D., is chair of APA's Council on Global
Psychiatry. Regarding Chinese psychiatrists, he said, "This may not be
the time to turn on them and blame them for actions" by the Chinese
The statement attributed these acts to "lack of training and
professional skills of some psychiatrists rather than [to] systematic abuse of
In addition, the CSP agreed to take steps to "educate [its]
members" about the issues that led to misdiagnosis and mistreatment and
said it welcomes the WPA's "assistance in correcting this
situation" and improving psychiatric diagnosis and treatment throughout
the People's Republic of China.
While the agreement is not ideal, said Harold Eist, M.D., it represents"
real progress" in preventing further abuses of psychiatry in
China and will lead "to a higher quality of care."
Eist, a former APA president, was part of a delegation that hammered out
this as well as an earlier agreement with the CSP in Beijing and is chair of
the WPA's Standing Review Committee, which evaluates complaints aimed at
psychiatric associations that are WPA members.
Eist said that the agreement is particularly significant because it is an
unprecedented acknowledgment by the Chinese government that human rights
abuses occurred in that country.
APA members and others involved in international psychiatry—through
the WPA and other groups—began several years ago to hear reports that
Falun Gong adherents were, without hearings or trials, being confined in
psychiatric hospitals—usually forensic hospitals—and prison labor
camps as a result of refusing to renounce their beliefs. These psychiatrists
tried to bring this situation to the attention of as many people as
In May 2000 the APA Committee on Abuse of Psychiatry and Psychiatrists
urged the WPA to begin an investigation of charges that Chinese psychiatrists
were taking part in the mistreatment of Falun Gong members who were not
mentally ill. During a 2000 visit to China by then APA president Allan Tasman,
M.D., and other APA leaders, the Americans informed their Chinese counterparts
about their concerns regarding the allegations of abuse of Falun Gong
adherents (Psychiatric News, June 16, 2000).
In 2001 the Royal College of Psychiatrists voted to urge the WPA to send an
investigative team to China and assess the validity of charges of psychiatric
mistreatment of Falun Gong members.
The Chinese government had outlawed Falun Gong in July 1999, saying its
millions of adherents—by some estimates there as many as 70
million—are part of a subversive religious cult. Its practitioners say
that it is a spiritual discipline that tries to improve mind, body, and spirit
through meditation, controlled breathing, and physical exercises.
In August 2002, at a meeting in Japan, WPA members passed a resolution to
send a team to investigate the charges about psychiatric abuse. A year earlier
Britain's Royal College of Psychiatrists took a similar position.
The CSP agreed to cooperate with an investigation of alleged psychiatric
abuses involving Falun Gong that was to begin in April. Several days before it
was to start, the CSP sent Okasha a letter in which it indicated that it was,
at the Chinese government's insistence, postponing indefinitely acting on its
earlier agreement to participate in a visit from WPA members, since the visit
was to be more investigative than educational.
The Chinese government's reneging on the verification visits is a"
bad decision," Eist stated, because officials sacrificed an
opportunity "to remove a lingering cloud of suspicion that they could
have dealt with."
Arthur Kleinman, M.D., a professor of medical anthropology and psychiatry
at Harvard, told Psychiatric News that the charges of psychiatric
abuse of Falun Gong members are exaggerated and some of the accounts"
distorted." Many cases came to light in which Falun Gong
adherents appeared to have a diagnosable mental illness, including obvious
symptoms of psychosis, "and were put in psychiatric hospitals for good
reasons," he noted.
While Kleinman acknowledged that some instances of abuse of psychiatry no
doubt occurred, he did not believe that they were "systematic," as
some some people had charged. "There is a very low level of
professionalization regarding forensic and ethical issues" among Chinese
psychiatrists, he said, and the low level of clinical and forensic expertise
is the "real problem" and at the root of many cases of substandard
or unacceptable treatment in Chinese psychiatric hospitals.
"I think the Chinese are quite open to improving" their
standard of psychiatric training and care, Kleinman noted. A WPA mission that
was more of an "inquisition" than educational outreach"
would have been detrimental to all sides," he added.
Abraham Halpern, M.D., is among the U.S. psychiatrists who are distressed
about what they contend is the mild tone of the WPA-CPS agreement.
"The WPA's decision to cancel its demand for an investigative mission
undercuts and renders meaningless its past high-sounding declarations
concerning misuse of psychiatry," he told Psychiatric News."
The allegations of psychiatric abuse in China involve mistreatment,
torture, and fraudulent diagnoses in the case of large numbers of political
dissidents and Falun Gong practitioners and should not be dismissed as mere
`failures in accurate diagnosis.'"
Halpern is honorary chair of China Mental Health Watch, which was formed in
2003 to "investigate and bring to light the ongoing persecution of Falun
Gong practitioners, with particular focus on the effects of psychiatric
abuse...." Halpern is also a professor emeritus of psychiatry at New
York Medical College and a former president of the American Academy of
Psychiatry and the Law.
Darrel Regier, M.D., director of APA's Office of Research and the American
Psychiatric Institute for Research and Education, called the agreement between
the WPA and CPS an "unprecedented accomplishment" in that an
official Chinese organization acknowledged errors in diagnosing and treating
Falun Gong practitioners and promised to correct them."
Regier also stressed that APA considers the May agreement in which the CPS
asked for education and advice from the WPA an important opportunity "to
enhance the scientific basis of psychiatric practice in China."
The chair of the APA Council on Global Psychiatry and a former APA
president, Rodrigo Muñoz, M.D., told Psychiatric News that he
is "delighted" that the WPA and CPS were able to arrive at an
agreement on the Falun Gong abuse charges. APA, he said, "has been
encouraging the Chinese psychiatric leaders to make sure the Chinese
Psychiatric Society is truly independent from the government. They are
listening to us. This may not be the time to turn on them and blame them for
actions by [the Chinese] government."
Muñoz rejected the suggestion by some U.S. psychiatrists that the
WPA should expel the CPS. "I hope we have left in the past... the
tendency to punish rather than talk," he said. "We would like to
be in a position to help those in other countries who share the same values we
so much appreciate." ▪