One democracy activist’s detention in mental health facility belies China’s legal reforms

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Originally published by RFI on May 28, 2020

China’s National People’s Congress ended on Thursday with the adoption of the first-ever Civil Code and controversial legislation on Hong Kong. But to what extent does China’s lawmaking body, officially presented as an example of “socialist democracy,” defend the citizens of China?

On 28 April, just three weeks before the start of the National People’s Congress, Feng Xiaoyan, a stern-looking woman in her early fifties, went to Beijing to hand out pamphlets asking for political reform – including the direct election of the president. 

Whereas in other countries she might have engaged passersby in political discussions, in Beijing she was quickly arrested and returned immediately to her hometown, Linyi, in Shandong Province, just a few hours by train from the Chinese capital.

Upon arrival she was rushed to the Linyi No. 4 People’s Hospital, which houses a mental health center, escorted by some 20 policemen, according to an eyewitness report provided by her daughter. 

As the annual session of the Chinese legislature comes to an end in Beijing, Feng Xiaoyan is still held in that mental institution.

But according to Feng Xiaoyan’s daughter, Alice, police never formally explained why her mother was taken away, nor did she get written confirmation as to why and for how long, her mother was to stay in the psychiatric ward.

“Many petitioners who went to Beijing have been abducted back to their local jurisdictions, either detained, or put into psychiatric facilities, or warned and released,” says Renée Xia of the Chinese human rights NGO Chinese Civil Rights Defenders, which monitors people who are detained in psychiatric institutions. 

“Forced commitment in psychiatric facilities remains a common form of retaliation and punishment by Chinese authorities against activists and government critics,” her NGO reported in its briefing in 2016. “The practice endures though it is apparently illegal, according to China’s first Mental Health Law,” adopted in 2012 by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress. 

Civil Code

This week, the same National People’s Congress voted, for the first time, in favour of a unified Civil Code

Chinese attempts to create a body of civil law date back more than a century, but early attempts to draft a code along European, and subsequently Soviet-Russian lines, never worked out. 

Only after the start of China’s reform policy in 1978 were marriage law, contract legislation, tort and other legal areas brought together in one comprehensive Civil Code. But for the Chinese people not much would change. 

Educated elite

The effort to draft a unified legal code has been driven by an educated elite who want to see China stand among the world’s nations as a country with a sophisticated, systematised and complete civil law, according to James Feinerman, professor of law at Georgetown University Law Center in the United States. 

“But most ordinary Chinese won’t even notice the changes that are going to be happening once this law is turned into a comprehensive Civil Code, because they’ve already been living under it in various forms.

“The Chinese were very conscious of the fact that their previous codifications were reliant on foreign models that they had borrowed, starting back in the 19th century, from France and Germany and then through Japan, and finally from the Soviets in the 1950s,” says Feinerman, adding that China’s first Civil Code, adopted this week, puts “their stamp on a genuinely authentic Chinese Civil Code that has grown out of Chinese roots and not just some patchwork that was put together with foreign bits.”

“Steady deterioration of the rule of law”

But streamlining new laws does not mean they protect China’s citizens better. “It’s just the opposite,” says Feinerman.

“Since about 2003 there’s been a steady decline,” which started during the term when Jiang Zemin was China’s party leader and president between 1989 and 2001, and accelerated during the Hu Jintao regime from 2001 to 2010. The rule of law deteriorated “with a vengeance when Xi Jinping came to power,” says Feinerman, pointing out that while the Civil Code may be an improvement, criminal law has certainly become harsher under Xi. 

“People who are targets of criminal law really enjoy no rights, no matter how high and mighty you may have been, no matter what your role or status in the Communist Party may have been.”

Proving his point is Feng Xiaoyan, who lingers in the mental ward of the Linyi No. 4 Hospital. She is a mid-level public official working as a deputy investigator of the People’s Congres of Linyi, the local sub-branch of the National People’s Congress. 

1989 People’s movement

According to her daughter Alice, Xiaoyan was always critical, something which became obvious when she participated as a student in the 1989 people’s movement. As a result, Feng “was never promoted” in the course of her thirty-year career in the state apparatus. 

Lingering dissatisfaction finally erupted late last year, when Feng supported the student demonstrations in Hong Kong, and was briefly arrested. She avoided a stay in a mental institution by rescinding her opinions. But her fears for Hong Kong may turn out to have been justified. 

Violent demonstrations

On Thursday, the NPC also adopted the controversial Hong Kong Mechanisms for National Security with an overwhelming majority of 2878 votes in favor, one against and six abstentions. 

The new rules allow “the organs of the Central People’s Government for the protection of national security to set up institutions in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region,’’ a clause which, critics say, spells the end of Hong Kong’s relative autonomy.

Pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong fear they may now face the same arbitrary treatment as people living on the mainland, like Feng Xiaoyan.

Alice claims that she witnessed her mother being slapped in the face by officials sent to arrest her. In a conversation which Alice secretly recorded, Feng Xiaoyan told her daughter that she had been forced to take medication over a perioid of 26 days, medication which “prevented her from sleeping and left her unable to think and speak fluently”. 

Kafkaesque quagmire

Alice has tried everything to obtain clarity on her mother’s situation but has been bogged down in a Kafkaesque bureaucratic quagmire. She sent letters to Linyi Municipal Health and Health Commission, the local police office, the local CCP Discipline Inspection Commission, the Linyi People’s Congress (her mother’s employer,) and the local Communist Party cell. 

“The Municipal Public Security Bureau summarised the complaint I submitted as ‘violent law enforcement’ and told me to find the health and safety committee. 

“The health and safety committee said it was ‘regular treatment.’ The Municipal Discipline Inspection Commission thought this was a family problem, and the Municipal People’s Congress said it was unable to rescue my mother,” she says.

The bottom line is that Feng Xiaoyan remains incarcerated in a mental facility without any legal council. When Alice contacted two lawyers, they advised her to “register” the behavior of the police, but did not offer any solutions. 

For the Feng family, and many other Chinese citizens who don’t believe in the primacy of the Communist Party and its rubber stamp legislative bodies, this week’s “historic” reforms are not worth the paper they are written on. 

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