Chinese security forces on Friday stopped and detained dozens of protesters who tried to storm a university to confront a professor who said nearly all petitioners are mentally ill and should be put away.
Law professor Sun Dongdong’s (孫東東) comments, published in a March issue of China Newsweek magazine, triggered outrage among petitioners who routinely flock to Beijing by the thousands to air complaints after their local governments ignore them.
About 40 people gathered outside the elite Peking University gates on Friday morning, scattering leaflets and shouting for the professor to come out to talk to them. They tried to pass through the gates, but dozens of security forces stopped them. They were then put into buses and taken away.
The incident capped more than a week of demonstrations outside the university. So far, dozens of protesters have been sent away on buses or taken away by police, other protesters and state media said.
The situation has drawn fresh attention to the plight of petitioners — mostly from China’s vast and poor countryside — who have come to symbolize the country’s failure to build a justice system that ordinary Chinese consider fair.
More than a case of hurt feelings, petitioners and their supporters worry that Sun’s essay will be used to further lend a professional gloss to the practice of placing petitioners in mental institutions.
“There’s very good reason behind these worries,” said activist lawyer Li Heping (李和平), who has taken on many rights cases.
“Nowadays, there is an overflow of cases involving petitioners being forced into mental hospitals,” he said. “After being labeled as a mental health patient, one loses all rights.”
The system has its roots in China’s imperial past, when people petitioned the emperor. It survived after the Communists took power with “letters and visits” to offices at every level of government to handle grievances. The number of people flooding into the capital in recent years has ballooned, as awareness of legal rights and their infringement by local officials has grown.
But local officials have resorted to various methods outside of the law to stop them, including sending thugs or police that place them in illegal detention centers in Beijing or force them to return home, fearing the grievances will reflect badly on them.
Late last year, the state-run Beijing News newspaper reported on the plight of petitioners placed in mental institutions in eastern Shandong Province, with some forced to take psychiatric drugs and told they would not be released until they signed pledges to drop their complaints.
The government says it receives between 3 million and 4 million letters and visits from petitioners each year, but rights groups put the figure in the tens of millions.
Sun is an associate professor at the law department and head of the university’s forensics department, which also helps court authorities evaluate the mental health of defendants. A well-known adviser to the Ministry of Health, he is also involved in drafting China’s first mental health law, state media said.
He quickly issued a public apology, but his critics have dismissed it as insincere. His department said he was not available for an interview on Friday.