Sat, Dec 24, 2005 - Page 9 News List

How the sane are locked up in Chinese asylums

By Luke Harding  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

It was as a small boy growing up in communist China that Wang Wanxing (王萬星) first had his doubts about the system. At school his teacher, Mr Li, extolled the virtues of Chairman Mao (毛澤東). Privately, however, Wang disliked Mao and disagreed with his criticism of Khrushchev.

While he was at a middle school in Beijing, his antipathy grew when his grandmother starved to death in one of China's rural famines. It was from these early beginnings that Wang eventually became one of China's most famous dissidents -- and shed rare light on one of the darkest aspects of the present regime: its systematic misuse of mental hospitals for political prisoners.

After a lifetime of dissent, Wang achieved international prominence in 1992 when he unfurled a banner in Tiananmen Square on the third anniversary of the 1989 student protests. The reaction was swift. He was arrested and dumped in a psychiatric hospital near Beijing, where he was to spend, apart from a short break, the next 13 years.

On Aug. 16 this year, the authorities released him and unexpectedly deported the 56-year-old Wang to Germany, where he was reunited with his wife and daughter, who had been living there as political refugees.

Wang's testimony is unique. He is the first high-profile dissident to be sent to Europe (rather than the US) since the late 1980s, and the only inmate of China's notorious Ankang system of police-run psychiatric hospitals to be expelled to the West.

Sitting in his sixth-floor flat in Frankfurt, Wang -- a spry figure who has recently taken up jogging -- says he had never intended to become a dissident or political prisoner. His struggle against the Chinese authorities had happened pretty much by accident.

"I don't really consider myself a hero. I think my conscience and intuition are not much different from other people's in China. My struggle came out of an attempt to help others," he says.

Wang's parents -- a laborer and an office worker -- shared his doubts about Mao but said nothing. Wang was less circumspect. In 1968, with China gripped by the Cultural Revolution, the communist authorities sent him to a collective farm in a remote northern town in Heilongjiang Province next to the river border with Russia. Here, he heaved rocks down from the mountains.

"It was extremely hard work. There were young men and women there from across China. My pay was 32 yuan a month," he says.

While in exile, Wang began a one-man epistolary campaign against the might of the Chinese state, writing a personal letter to Mao urging him to reinstate the then disgraced Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平) who had been the general secretary of the Communist Party. The answer was swift: a week later three police cars turned up in the middle of the night and took him away.

"I knew I was going to be arrested. But I also knew I was right," he says.

He spent the next month in jail. When he got out his colleagues were unimpressed by his letter: "Most regarded me as stupid. All they could think about was getting back to Beijing."

In 1976, with mass popular demonstrations taking place in Tiananmen Square following the death of Zhou Enlai (周恩來), Wang wrote another letter, this time to premier Hua Guofeng (華國鋒), urging him to rehabilitate Deng. This time he was jailed for 17 months and branded a "reactionary." In February 1979, once Deng had returned to power, Wang was allowed to go back to Beijing, where he took a job in a vegetable warehouse. But his pro-democracy activities continued.

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