Confident and relaxed, Wu Chunxia leaves Henan Province High People’s Court. Photo credit: Han Junjie, China Youth Daily
Some observers have compared Wu Chunxia’s use of the judicial process to clear her name to the efforts of petitioning mother Tang Hui, whose challenge to reeducation through labor (RTL) helped galvanize support for RTL reform. Intercepted in Beijing, kidnapped from a Henan courtroom, detained, sentenced to RTL, and forcefully institutionalized, Wu has successfully fought back with a series of lawsuits through which she has already received more than 145,000 yuan (nearly $24,000) in compensation and civil damages. Her story is told in an investigative report (translated below) by China Youth Daily.
A survivor of domestic abuse, Wu was detained by police after seeking the assistance of provincial and central officials in a custody dispute with her ex-husband—a matter complicated by the man’s cozy relations with local police. Perhaps responding to urgent instructions to control sources of instability surrounding the Beijing Olympics, local authorities arranged to have Wu sent for psychiatric treatment just weeks before the games opened in August 2008.
Under the direction of local police, Wu was held without visitors in a psychiatric hospital for 132 days of treatment for “paranoid psychosis.” The primary symptoms of her condition, for which no evaluation was ever carried out, were “running around and making allegations for three years.” After she left the hospital, the formerly healthy Wu was 20kg heavier and suffered from high blood pressure and high cholesterol.
Many of the human rights abuses reported in contemporary China share a common theme: the lengths to which local authorities are willing to go in order to control people they identify as threats to stability. Many of those who have been targeted are petitioners, often women, seeking redress for what they believe to be unjust administrative or judicial decisions. Having already won a string of lawsuits, Wu is currently awaiting the verdict in a suit against the Zhoukou Public Security Bureau for its role in her forced institutionalization.
A Life Changed by Petitioning
Han Junjie and Zhang Yufu
China Youth Daily, July 19, 2013
Just as she had done in the past, at 5 p.m. on July 18, Wu Chunxia placed layer upon layer of her litigation documents in a plastic bag and carried them out of the main entrance of the Henan Province High People’s Court. This time, however, she was much more confident about her suit.
Wu Chunxia lives in the Gaozhuang neighborhood of the Xiaoqiao Subdistrict Office, Chuanhui District, Zhoukou, Henan Province. In 2004, she petitioned about “family and village affairs” and became a “stability-preservation target” in her locality. One after another, she was detained and sent to reeducation through labor (RTL). Then as the RTL began, she was sent for 132 days of “treatment” in a psychiatric hospital.
Since 2009, Wu Chunxia has continuously petitioned the courts, and her previous detention and RTL decisions were ultimately annulled. In June 2012, Wu Chunxia won a civil lawsuit and received a total of 145,336.70 yuan in compensation from the Henan Provincial Psychiatric Hospital and the Xiaoqiao Subdistrict Office of Chuanhui District, Zhoukou. Afterwards, Wu Chunxia continued her administrative lawsuits by taking the Zhoukou Public Security Bureau to court. On May 6, 2013, the Zhoukou intermediate court confirmed in a trial of first instance that the Sha’nan Branch of the Zhoukou Public Security Bureau acted unlawfully in sending Wu Chunxia to a psychiatric hospital.
After the verdict was handed down, the Zhoukou Public Security Bureau did not accept it and decided to appeal. On the afternoon of July 18, the Henan high court held a trial hearing but did not announce a decision.
“Even though it’s been a very difficult road to clear my name, I remain steadfast in my belief that all attempts at sophistry will be powerless in the face of the facts,” said Wu Chunxia.
What sort of misfortune did Wu Chunxia, once an ordinary rural village woman, encounter so that she ended up being detained, sent to RTL, and “forcefully institutionalized in the name of mental illness ”? After being discharged from the psychiatric hospital, how did she pursue the difficult path to protect her rights? During this process, what twists and turns did she encounter along the way?
Domestic Violence and Petitioning Lead to Calamity
In 1998, Wu Chunxia’s older sister underwent an operation for acute appendicitis, and the 24-year-old Wu went to help her sister look after her cake shop. Wu Chunxia couldn’t make cakes, so she borrowed several books from a classmate and sat in the shop reading.
One day, a young man selling cement next door to the cake shop came in to borrow some water to wash his hands. He asked Wu Chunxia: “What are you reading?”
This is how the two got to know each other.
The young man selling cement was named Li Zhenhong (pseudonym) and was born in the same year as Wu Chunxia. In April 1999, the two got married and one year later they had a son.
After they married, Wu Chunxia went to the city to deliver purified water. Her husband stopped selling cement and also went to the city to work as a security guard. Since theirs was a marriage entered into freely without being arranged by others, up until the time that their son turned three the family enjoyed a pretty good life.
In 2003, the family’s happiness came to an end when Li Zhenhong went off the rails. One day that year, Wu Chunxia returned home from delivering water and, following an argument, was beaten by Li Zhenhong.
Afterwards, Li went from beating Wu Chunxia to smashing things, seizing the child, and kicking Wu out of the house. In front of a government official, Li Zhenhong even went so far as to say: “If she enters the house, I’ll beat her.”
It was only when her husband took her to court to sue for divorce that she learned that he was having an affair. A mediation attempt by the township women’s federation failed, so Wu Chunxia had no choice but to go into hiding. Wu then complained to the village committee all the way up to the provincial women’s federation, all to no avail.
Wu Chunxia decided to go to Beijing to seek assistance from the All-China Women’s Federation. That was the first time she went to Beijing to petition. She didn’t know anyone there and didn’t know how to get around. She stayed near the long-distance bus station at Yongdingmen.
Hearing that she had gone to Beijing, the Shucai Township Police Station of the Sha’nan Branch of the Zhoukou Public Security Bureau sent personnel to Beijing to intercept her. When Wu Chunxia discovered her interceptors outside the gate of the State Office of Letters and Visits, she quickly ducked into a taxi.
As soon as she got in the taxi, a police officer flashed his badge, stopped the cab, and dragged her out of the vehicle. Later, Wu was kept inside a guesthouse near Beijing’s Taoranting Overpass. The officer who flagged down the taxi was named Zhang Xiaodong, then a police instructor at the Shucai Township Police Station. He was close to the family of Wu Chunxia’s husband and Wu knew him well.
Several days later, with the help of a long-time petitioner, Wu Chunxia found an opportunity to escape from the guesthouse. But she never imagined the consequences this petitioning episode would bring her.
On July 16, 2008, Wu Chunxia and her husband were in court on account of their divorce. This day was the beginning of her nightmare: “I’ll never forget that day, even after I’m dead.” It was that day that she was taken directly from the courtroom and dropped into an even more dark and gloomy life.
The day before Wu Chunxia was taken away from the courtroom, on the morning of July 15, 2008, Chuanhui District, Zhoukou, held a “Work Meeting on the Standardization of Petitioning Procedures and Combatting Illegal Petitioning Activity in Accordance with the Law” attended by officials from the four major political institutions and persons in charge of the neighborhood committees and subdistrict offices. According to reports from that time, “the goal of the meeting was to help all work units in the district clearly understand the current situation regarding petitioning.” An official from the politico-legal committee of the Chuanhui District Party Committee read aloud an Opinion on Standardizing Petitioning Procedures and Combatting Illegal Petitioning Activity in Accordance with the Law.
This day also continues to haunt Cai Yuzhong, a judge at the Shabei Court of the Chuanhui District [People’s] Court in Zhoukou.
Cai Yuzhong says that at the time Wu Chunxia was in a dispute with Li Zhenhong over custody of their son. The doors to the courtroom burst open and several men rushed in, the one in charge asked, “Who’s Wu Chunxia?” Wu Chunxia answered and she was bundled out of the courtroom.
“I’ve never seen anyone dare to kidnap someone from a courtroom. Such lawlessness!” said Cai Yuzhong. He noted down the vehicle license plate number and quickly dialed 110 to report the incident to police. Very soon after, a deputy director from the Sha’nan Branch of the Zhoukou Public Security Bureau telephoned to tell Cai Yuzhong that it was the police who had taken Wu Chunxia away. This filled Cai with disbelief and anger.
Before she realized what was going on, Wu Chunxia had already been taken to the Shucai Township Police Station. This was a familiar place to Wu Chunxia, a place where she could find her “old acquaintance”—the police station police instructor, Zhang Xiaodong.
Wu Chunxia previously told a reporter that back in the spring of 2007, when she was suing her husband for abuse, that Zhang Xiaodong’s uncle, Zhang Hengbin, was suspected of giving false testimony in court. When Wu Chunxia confronted him about it, he beat her.
But this time, she actually didn’t see Zhang Xiaodong. The person who interrogated her was Sergeant Zhai Wucheng. Up until the time Wu affixed her thumbprint to the interrogation transcript, [Zhang] never appeared. But afterwards, Zhang Xiaodong’s name was written on the interrogation transcript.
Wu Chunxia clearly remembers that Zhai Wucheng was speaking on the telephone while he was questioning her, and he asked whatever the person on the phone said. The voice sounded very much like that of Zhang Xiaodong.
“Forceful Institutionalization” of 132 Days
On July 26, 2008, Wu Chunxia was released from detention, but she had not yet regained her freedom.
Wu Chunxia, just released from the detention center, was once again taken to the police station. Just as night was about to fall, several people bundled the weakened Wu Chunxia into a vehicle. Someone at the police station told her: “You’re being sent to RTL!”
Documents show: “On July 25, 2008, the RTL Committee of the Zhoukou People’s Government decided to send Wu Chunxia to one year of RTL for disturbing social order.”
Wu Chunxia never imagined that even before she had entered the RTL center, on the night of July 26, she would be forcibly sent to the Henan Provincial Psychiatric Hospital. This hospital is located in Xinxiang, Henan, right next to the Henan No.2 Prison. Here, she spent 132 days undergoing “treatment.”
In the middle of the night on July 26, a groggy Wu Chunxia was placed on a bed and quickly fell asleep. It was only when she awoke the next day that she realized she was in a psychiatric hospital.
Wu Chunxia was scared and rushed to find a doctor. The doctor told her: “The local public security authorities and your sister-in-law sent you here, saying that you were ill and needed treatment.” The doctor also told Wu Chunxia that the police officer who brought her there had said: “Wang Xia (Wu Chunxia’s sister-in-law) is her only relative.”
On the mere basis of “the local public security authorities sent you here,” Wu Chunxia received 132 days of treatment for “paranoid psychosis.” The hospital kept a record of Wu Chunxia’s illness totaling eight pages. The “primary illness symptoms” were “running around and making allegations for three years.” The doctor’s “medical advice” was: “treatment for mania,” “level-one treatment,” “electroshock treatment,” “suicide prevention,” “escape prevention”....
Wu Chunxia says there are two records in her medical chart from October of that year [saying]: “recommend judicial [psychiatric] evaluation.”
“This shows that even the hospital wasn’t certain whether I was sick,” Wu Chunxia says. However, until the very end, neither the public security authorities nor the hospital ever carried out any kind of evaluation.
Wu Chunxia showed members of the media a sheet of medical advice upon which was written: “level-one management,” “visitation forbidden.” Wu Chunxia explains that level-one management is the strictest form of control involving on-duty nurses 24 hours a day.
While Wu was in the hospital, her older sister entered the hospital posing as a relative of another patient and shouted her name in the hall. But Wu Chunxia was tightly restrained by the nurses and her sister was quickly dragged out of the hospital. A furious Wu Chunxia continually demanded to know, “What gives you the right to prevent people from visiting me?”
In all the excitement, a nurse let slip: “The public security bureau won’t let anyone see you.”
As for “treatment,” Wu Chunxia has written a record: “They gave me electroshock and had me take medication. Eight years after giving birth, when I took their medication white stuff began leaking from my breasts and they swelled unbearably and were very painful....”
“The most unbearable thing was that they blindfolded me, stuck steel needles directly into my head, and turned on the current. Three times a week, there was no way to avoid or escape it, no matter how much you screamed. Anyway, in the psychiatric hospital wild shrieks and howls would come and go. Your screams only proved that you were a psychiatric patient....”
“I pleaded over and over, saying that I wasn’t mentally ill and begged them to stop giving me medication. I was homesick and wanted to go home. I begged them to call the police station and let me go home....”
Wu Chunxia applied to be discharged from the hospital nearly every day. Each time, however, she got the same answer: “Your discharge is up to the police station.” The days passed one by one. Wu Chunxia threatened to commit suicide multiple times. Finally, on December 5, 2008, the psychiatric hospital had the Shucai Township Police Station notify Wang Xia to come retrieve Wu Chunxia from the hospital.
Wu Chunxia’s 132 days of “treatment” were book-ended by a commitment and a discharge both made by an organ of state power. The Xiaoqiao Subdistrict Office of Chuanhui District, Zhoukou, paid 14,758.70 yuan in medical expenses and retrieved her from the hospital.
Sues Psychiatric Hospital, Wins 145,000 Yuan
After she left the hospital, the formerly healthy Wu Chunxia contracted high blood pressure and high cholesterol; she was more than 20kg heavier than she had been before her “treatment” began. After a physical examination, she began to seek redress for having been “forcefully institutionalized in the name of mental illness.”
In May 2009, she submitted documents to Yang Zhengchao, secretary of the Zhoukou Discipline Inspection Committee. Yang instructed the Zhoukou Public Security Bureau to deal with the matter. One month later, the Zhoukou RTL Committee revoked its decision of a year earlier against Wu Chunxia. In the meantime, she copied out a letter of guarantee promising not to petition anymore and received a 30,000-yuan “subsidy for difficulties.”
Her plan to protect her rights progressed step by step: In November 2009, Wu Chunxia filed suit with the Chuanhui District [People’s] Court of Zhoukou, claiming that the Henan Provincial Psychiatric Hospital and the Xiaoqiao Subdistrict Office had violated her rights. One month later, she filed an administrative lawsuit with the same court demanding annulment of the police decision to give her a 10-day detention on July 16, 2008.
At the beginning, the Chuanhui District court refused to hear either suit. After several complicated back-and-forths, the Zhoukou Intermediate People’s Court finally assigned the Shenqiu County court to hear the suits.
On March 23, 2011, the Shenqiu County court annulled the detention decision against Wu Chunxia on the grounds that the defendant “had made an unclear finding of facts, had insufficient evidence, followed improper procedure, and applied the law inappropriately.” The decision was thus “annulled in accordance with the law” and Wu Chunxia received 1,423.30 yuan in state compensation.
After both the RTL and detention decisions had been annulled, Wu Chunxia’s attorney Zhang Chungui adjusted their litigation strategy: “It was the [subdistrict] office, the public security bureau, and Wu Chunxia’s sister-in-law Wang Xia who participated in the forced [psychiatric] commitment. Wang Xia was coerced, so we can’t sue her. For the time being, we won’t sue the public security bureau either. The focus will be on suing the psychiatric hospital and the [subdistrict] office.”
Zhang Chungui’s worry was that suing the public security bureau would make the lawsuit harder to win. It would also be easier for the court to shift responsibility [by classifying] the case as an administrative suit, but since the psychiatric hospital is considered an institutional organization [and not an administrative unit], by combining the [defendants], the suit would be hard to move forward.
The attorneys for the psychiatric hospital appeared to see through Zhang Chungui’s strategy. They insisted on treating Wang Xia and the police as joint defendants, but Wu Chunxia refused and the court rejected this demand. The Xiaoqiao Subdistrict Office that was sued alongside the hospital also objected to making the public security bureau a joint defendant.
The Xiaoqiao Subdistrict Office also claimed in defense that it had no idea that Wu Chunxia had been forcibly committed. The only reason it paid Wu’s medical expenses was to offer assistance to a resident under its jurisdiction.
At the first hearing on October 27, 2011, a representative from the hospital requested to evaluate “whether Wu Chunxia is mentally ill,” but this was rejected by the court.
Wu Chunxia claimed that she had suffered insult to her person, and her attorney Zhang Chungui answered back sarcastically to the defendant’s lawyer: “Well, I also suspect that you are mentally ill. Shall we evaluate you?”
The representative for the Henan Provincial Psychiatric Hospital maintained that the additional defendants and subjecting Wu Chunxia to psychiatric evaluation were both extremely important to clarifying the nature of the case. Zhang Chungui argued in response that it was the plaintiff’s right to decide whom to sue and that even if an evaluation showed Wu Chunxia to be mentally ill, it would not prove that she had been mentally ill at the time she was forcibly committed.
The two sides argued for over an hour. The representative from the psychiatric hospital also pointed out that at the time of her discharge from the hospital Wu Chunxia had refused to take along medication that would stabilize her treatment. Since “paranoid psychosis” often involves relapse or fluctuation, it would be necessary for the court to establish whether she was currently ill in order to determine whether she was in possession of [full] civil capacity and the ability to engage in litigation. He therefore submitted an application to delay the trial. According to legal statute, applications for this sort of “special procedure” should be handled by the Chuanhui District [People’s] Court, located in the place of household registration for the target of the request. Thereupon, the judge announced an adjournment.
Immediately after exiting the court, Wu Chunxia telephoned an official at the Chuanhui District court who then promised her that [the court] would definitely not accept the request.
Several days later, the lawyers representing the psychiatric hospital applied to file a case with the Chuanhui District court, but this was rejected, as expected: “They said Wu Chunxia again went to make a scene at the case-filing department, so no one dares accept this case.”
In the eyes of the Henan Provincial Psychiatric Hospital, Wu Chunxia had been petitioning and filing suits for many years. Even if the police, prosecutors, and courts in Zhoukou were afraid of her, they were undermining judicial fairness in the interest of maintaining stability. Of course, Wu Chunxia doesn’t agree with this assessment: “The court should have helped me right this wrong from the beginning.”
On March 8, 2012, a first-instance civil trial verdict from the Shenqiu County court said that the Henan Provincial Psychiatric Hospital was at fault in three ways in its treatment of Wu Chunxia as a psychiatric patient. First, according to the defendant’s Regulations for the Management of Clinical Work, only a patient’s guardian or a judicial organ can commit a patient to the hospital. But in this case it could only be established that Wu Chunxia was sent for treatment by her sister-in-law Wu Xia, who was not her legal guardian, and the psychiatric hospital could not provide evidence to prove that a judicial organ had sent [Wu] for treatment. Second, even if the person who committed [Wu] met the regulations, the defendant admitted her solely on a statement by Wang Xia and gave her treatment for “manic psychosis.” Third, plaintiff Wu Chunxia was committed on July 26, 2008, and the time of diagnosis recorded in her case file is October 23, 2008. But in a treatment summary on that date and a note recorded five days later during rounds by one of the hospital’s deputy directors, it was “recommended to conduct a judicial evaluation.” This shows that at that time the defendant had not yet established whether the plaintiff was mentally ill.
The Shenqiu County court ruled that the Henan Provincial Psychiatric Hospital should compensate Wu Chunxia more than 110,000 yuan: 5,841.10 yuan in lost wages, 4,302.10 yuan in medical expenses, 600 yuan in transportation costs, and 100,000 yuan in damages for mental anguish.
Following the trial of first instance, both Wu Chunxia and the hospital filed appeals. On June 15, the Zhoukou Intermediate People’s Court issued a final ruling, confirming that the Xiaoqiao Subdistrict Office had participated in committing Wu Chunxia and ruling that the Henan Provincial Psychiatric Hospital and Xiaoqiao Subdistrict Office “jointly compensate” Wu Chunxia in the amount of 145,336 yuan. Of this, 100,000 was still damages for mental anguish.
Although the ruling spoke of “joint compensation,” the Henan Provincial Psychiatric Hospital never contacted the Xiaoqiao Subdistrict Office to discuss how to divide up the compensation payment. Lou Tao, head of the hospital’s medical section knew they “simply couldn’t count on them.” During the three trials, the subdistrict office had tried to deflect responsibility for the commitment completely.
Recently, Wu Chunxia heard that the Shenqiu County court had checked the accounts of the Xiaoqiao Subdistrict Office and found that they had no funds to spare.
Ultimately, the Henan Provincial Psychiatric Hospital footed the bill for the judgment and then some. In the view of the hospital, this is not unusual: “Both the court and the subdistrict office are under Zhoukou’s jurisdiction. We’re in Xinxiang. Of course they’ll do everything they can to ensure we pay....”
In the end, nearly four years after being “forcefully institutionalized in the name of mental illness,” Wu Chunxia had the label of “mentally ill” removed. In an interview, Lou Tao, head of the medical section of the Henan Provincial Psychiatric Hospital, said that this was the first time in the 61 years since the hospital was established that it had lost a case involving a dispute over “forceful institutionalization.”
Suing the Public Security Organ
While she was suing the psychiatric hospital and the [subdistrict] office, Wu Chunxia was also preparing another case: a suit against the unlawful [police officers] who handled her case.
Her suit claims that the 132 days of so-called “treatment” caused her to contract cardiovascular and cerebrovascular disease and very possibly led to her becoming infertile.
Wu Chunxia says that she frequently has visions of a person who makes her furious beyond repair. Everything that has happened to her—from when her husband divorced her to her seizure from the courtroom, her administrative detention, and her commitment in the psychiatric hospital where she was tormented—is nearly all related to this person.
After the RTL and detention punishments were revoked and she won her lawsuit against the psychiatric hospital, Wu Chunxia went to petition at the Zhoukou Public Security Bureau, demanding that it hold police officers Zhang Xiaodong and others accountable for her detention, RTL, and commitment.
A person at the public security bureau once urged her: “We never sent you to RTL, the detention was annulled, and we gave you compensation. What are you suing for!?”
“It’s precisely because the court annulled the RTL and detention [decisions]; this shows that they [i.e., the police] violated the law in handling my case,” Wu Chunxia says.
On May 6, 2013, Wu Chunxia again won another lawsuit. On this day, the Zhoukou Intermediate People’s Court found that the former Sha’nan Branch of the Zhoukou Public Security Bureau participated in sending Wu Chunxia to the Henan Provincial Psychiatric Hospital. It acted in error and this action is considered a violation of the law.
After the verdict was delivered, the Zhoukou Public Security Bureau filed an appeal. On the afternoon of July 18, the Henan High court held a trial hearing. In the courtroom, the two sides argued over whether the Zhoukou Public Security Bureau carried out the commitment, whether Wu Chunxia’s administrative lawsuit against the public security has passedthe [statutory] deadline, and whether, if the Zhoukou Public Security Bureau carried out the commitment, it did so in violation of the law.
Since the lawyers willing to represent Wu Chunxia pro bono were only notified by the court on July 12 of the time the trial would commence and were [thus] unable to make it to the trial on time, Wu Chunxia decided to appear in court on her own behalf.
“The facts are the facts—no one can change them,” Wu Chunxia repeatedly said in the courtroom. “Whoever violated the law should be held accountable.”
Even though the Henan high court did not announce a verdict immediately, Wu Chunxia is confident that she will win this lawsuit because she has always remained steadfast in her belief that the law will ultimately give her a just response.