Chinese Law Prof Blog

Editor: Donald C. Clarke
George Washington University Law School

Thursday, January 4, 2007

New book: "China's Psychiatric Inquisition"

Normally I don't plug individual books or articles (then I might have to start justifying why I don't plug others, and that's not a road I want to go down), but I make an exception for material that is really outstanding or hard to find or some combination of both. In this case both criteria are satisfied (it's not on

The book in question is Robin Munro, China's Psychiatric Inquisition: Dissent, Psychiatry and the Law in Post-1949 China (London: Wildy, Simmonds and Hill, 2006), a thorough study of the political abuse of psychiatry in China based on Munro's Ph.D. thesis (Department of Law, School of Oriental & African Studies, University of London). (I should perhaps disclose a personal connection: I have been a friend of the author for many years.)

This is an unimpeachably (and in my opinion irrefutably) researched book, based largely on openly published Chinese sources. As a result, skeptics don't need to take the author's word for it; they can verify his sources for themselves. Although Munro's previous works on this subject have, not surprisingly, subjected him to criticism, none of the criticism I have seen - even where it rises above ad hominem name-calling - actually addresses the sources he cites in such detail and what they tell us. In particular, many of his critics have focused on Falungong-related issues, which are just a minor part of the overall story. Political abuse of psychiatry existed well before the anti-Falungong campaign and continues quite apart from it.

For a debate on earlier work in this area by Munro (which will bear out my characterization of the criticism), see the following (a symposium issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and Law, and a response by Munro in a subsequent issue):

Munro's response to his critics:

Finally, here is the blurb on the publisher's Web site provided by Prof. Andrew Nathan:

This is a pathbreaking work in China studies, a chilling account of psychiatric abuse of political dissidents dating back to the early days of the Chinese regime and extending to the present. Munro's remarkable research brings to light the sufferings of thousands of previously unsuspected victims, some detailed in heart-breaking case studies.

Far from being an obscure corner of the Chinese system, the gulag of psychiatric abuse proves to be diagnostic of fundamental flaws in Chinese-style rule of law and state-dominated medicine. Munro's earlier research sparked an international campaign to seek improvements. This new, full account of his findings will stand as a classic of human rights research while it deepens our understanding of the Chinese legal and political system.

Publications | Permalink

TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference New book: "China's Psychiatric Inquisition":


If Munro have "based largely on openly published sources" and if, as many Western scholars have noted, that published sources on Chinese political/legal institutions are biased at least in some way, it is hardly plausible to claim his work as "unimpeachably (and in my opinion irrefutably)."

In any event, to claim the "political abuse of psychiatry" in China as "Inquisition," and to assert that such practices only have happened in China -- as Andrew Nathan implied when referring to the "China's style of rule of law" -- are simply buying too much into the stereotypical Western Orientalist notion of Chinese law (or lack of law) in the contemporary as well as historical period. Contemporary comparative legal scholars might have to be reminded of the central arguments by Michel Foucault and numerous other recent scholars of "modern" Western criminal justice to torture and punish criminals mentally and psychologically, rather than physically, was not an invention first patented by the so-called "modern" "civilized" Western legal systems in England, the U.S., France, and so on, esp. in the prison system (the Benthamite Panoptican model). While it has become a universally appealing position and the easiest way to secure a moral high ground for Western scholars by pointing out various human rights abuses in modern China, which may be justified if we accept the "universality of human rights discourse," it is less justifiable to make such occurrences totally unique of Chinese law, Chinese culture, or Chinese history. It only reconfirms the thesis of Foucault and many other recent scholars that modern societies in generall have not really become "civilized." Witness the U.S.-directed hangings of Sadam Hussein even if such "brutalizing, dehumanizing" form of death penalties have been decried and condemned for at least two centuries in the "civilized" Western societies.

Posted by: Ahli | Jan 5, 2007 6:06:03 AM

Regrettably, the comment above duplicates the problems of the other criticisms I mentioned, in that it does not address the actual sources Munro has used. Indeed, the writer does not seem to have read Munro's work at all. First of all, the "openly published sources" I referred to are sources in the relevant Chinese (PRC) literature, written by Chinese authors and published in Chinese books and journals. This material cannot therefore be dismissed as "biased", "anti-China", etc. Second, neither Munro nor anyone else writing in this field that I know of asserts that such things happen only in China. Again, such a criticism could be made only by someone who has not actually read the work in question.

Finally, the writer appears to believe that a statement that bad things happen in China is refuted by a statement that the same bad things happen in Western countries. (The other possibility is that the author believes that the practices in question are not bad anywhere.) This seems to be the view of the Hickling piece, but it is not one to which I can subscribe. If you think political abuse of psychiatry is bad, why on earth would you be comforted to know that it happens in countries other than China as well? I don't think the victims feel better knowing this.

Western scholars who study China do indeed write about China - this does not seem to me cause for alarm or condemnation - but the notion that Westerners talk about human rights abuses only in China and never in their own societies is fanciful; look at the work of organizations such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and Human Rights First (formerly the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights). The ACLU, whose membership can to the best of my knowledge be characterized as "Western", is regularly denounced by the right for its activism in the US. And finally, even if all Westerners who write about human rights problems in China *were* hypocrites who ignored such problems in their own societies, it would still not bear on whether their observations about China were accurate or whether these were problems worth being concerned about. If exposure can help the victim - and I suggest we take the victim's point of view - then we should support exposure.

Criticism of Munro's (or anyone's) work is quite appropriate, but it should be based on what he has actually said, not on what one imagines he has said, and how he has used his sources.

Posted by: Don Clarke | Jan 5, 2007 6:54:13 AM

Post a comment