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Sorrow and death under a totalitarian state
On pain, fear, panic and the profound hopelessness and despair induced by dysfunctional coercive social control systems
What follows is an account from today's reality at the People's Republic of China, shared by Yutong Zhang, mathematician and researcher, political dissident and survivor of punitive psychiatry life-threatening practices1. Yutong briefly and bravely presented last month at the event on political abuses of psychiatry: ongoing cases Worldwide (edit: the account is not his, but of informants we will further interview).
It’s September of 2023, more than one and a half years since my wife and I left China, yet we’re still suffering from the mental torture the Chinese Communist Party brought upon us. Only those who experienced it can truly understand the evilness of the communist party’s dictatorship.
During the last decade or so when my wife and I were in China, because of the online posts on her thoughts on the communist party and the history of China, though in very indirect and restrained expressions, we were still heavily surveilled and tracked by numerous agencies of the communist party. In these years we have been harassed in our residence by local Residents' Committee for investigation in the names of care and concerns. They appeared good-natured, perhaps bringing gifts such as milk, but never compromised with their investigations. They demanded to conduct investigations in our apartment and upload locations, and my wife was the only one in the entire microarea to be treated like this. There was another person across the street also under investigation; one day, that person killed themself by jumping off a building.
Our home in China was located in the town of Yanjiao, just outside Beijing. During the covid pandemic, we installed surveillance cameras outside our front door. We observed more and more frequent personnel in different uniforms observing in front of our door. To make it look like there’s no one in the residence, we installed two sheeted curtains, one of which is made of aluminum, completely blocking natural light, and making our home dark even when there’s broad daylight outside. We dare not to make any sounds. For food, we can only cook some rice congee with an electric cooker, hoarding rice and wheat in large quantities with vacuum seals so that we can avoid leaving our homes and still fulfill our living needs. We had an apartment with two bedrooms and one living room. I lived in the living room so that I could hear if there was anyone outside, and my wife in the main bedroom, with another bedroom full of cluttered items, in the hope that she could hide in it if they decided to break into our home.
During the pandemic, because of the fear that the government would “disappear” my wife with the excuse of anti-pandemic measures, we have been hiding, not getting PCR tests and vaccinations. While they came to our residence doors more and more frequently, we felt if we stayed in China, we would be taken away inevitably, and such fear has mentally tortured my wife for years; we must leave China as soon as possible.
Every time we enter Beijing via buses, we have to go through checkpoints, where everyone has to be inspected after disembarking the vehicle, and my wife in particular would be checked more rigorously, and often the residents’ committee personnel will also call to ask for the reason of us going to Beijing. My wife always used the excuse of visiting a friend, but in fact we were preparing our visas for leaving the country.
In 2022, the zero covid policy caused intermittent lockdowns. On the first day after such a lockdown, we left China. In order to exit the border smoothly, we had our first PCR test, as it was necessary to enter the Capital International Airport. To reduce risks, we particularly chose a private hospital instead of the mass testing site in our microarea. With a chain of luck and coincidence, we successfully left China for the UK.
Our destination was the US, the “spiritual homeland” of my wife. But since her visa was denied, we decided to go to the UK first and apply for a US visa there. While we were in the UK, we always stayed in the hotels and Airbnb rentals. It was known that China operates “extraterritorial police stations” in London and Edinburgh, yet at the time the British government hadn’t taken any action about it. We went to Glasgow in Scotland at the first possibility, and then the suburbs in Northern Ireland. Our attempt for the US visa in the UK failed again, so we were forced to go to Mexico, and then travel into the US via the land border.
After we entered the US, we realized that the mental traumatization of my wife by the communist party did not alleviate much due to having arrived at the free world. We lived in a place far away from local Chinese communities, and my wife was still terrified of daylight, closing her curtains. We immediately brought thickened curtains and sound-proofing materials, so that it became more difficult for people outside to look or hear inside. We installed cameras on our residence doors and windows, yet still anytime a Chinese stranger walks by my wife gets terrified, worrying about surveillance.
A while ago, my wife developed severe persecutory delusion: the kitchen sink was blocked and odor appeared—it’s usual for old houses to exhibit these problems—and my wife felt someone was trying to poison her, wishing to move, but since I didn’t have an employment authorization and my wife doesn’t speak English, not able to live independently, it was impossible for me to start working, and thus changing residence and moving would’ve caused us extreme difficulties. During those times, we hired three groups of technicians to repair the blockage before it was finally fixed, during each time of which my wife got deeply terrified.
In the meantime, my wife also developed cognitive problems: there was this month when she thought the world was coming to an end, and that someone was trying to save her; she asked me to take her outside between 10pm and 5am, thinking someone wants to meet her and take her away from this world. It took a month for her to finally realize that these were hallucinations.
When my wife was in China, due to the fear of being incarcerated in a psychiatric hospital by the communist party—it’s standard practice of the communist party to silence dissidents—my wife attempted to acquire a certificate for psychotherapy, in an attempt to prevent such happening to her. I always thought it was the constant surveillance of the communist party causing my wife fear, but after arriving in the US I realized that such an inhumane environment has induced cognitive impairment. I also contacted mental health support organizations in the US, but eventually gave up the plan, as the communist party’s torturing practice via abuse of psychiatry has already caused my wife severe fear of psychiatric treatment such that she would believe I was persecuting her if I brought her such treatment.
On the matter of psychiatric treatment, I myself had fear too: at the end of 2020, due to financial disputes in my family, my relatives conspired with the residents’ committee, communal police, and the psychiatric hospital to imprison me in the psychiatric hospital. Their “evidence” was even my handwritten notes about the communist party. After I compromised on the financial disputes, they finally released me. That seven days in the psychiatric hospital gave me extreme fear of them too, as well as profound skepticism of the so-called modern psychiatric treatment.
Perhaps only time and company can alleviate these traumas and fears due to having lived under high-pressure autocratic surveillance. Last month, under my wife’s demands, we swapped rooms, so that she started living in a small room closer to our backyard, and me in the main bedroom closer to the streets. It has become possible for her to open the curtains, and stop worrying about making noise audible to others, making sounds normally, even turning on the radio for music. However, I realized later that I was too happy too early, as she became manic, raging, talking into the air day and night, even cursing and crying. She laid down when tired, and started talking after waking up. It seemed like she wanted to speak loudly all those things that she didn’t dare to speak aloud in so many years.
I don’t know how long it will take for my wife’s mental suffering to stop, and I know it will be hard every day. But I think time will cure everything for us. These words are just to tell you, that it is not the case that every dissident against totalitarianism and autocracy has a strong mentality. Such as my wife, can’t control her urge to whistleblow about the communist party, but at the same time cannot handle the fear of their threats, so being under such torture for a long time has caused her profound mental traumatization, and such traumatization from autocracy, consequences of psychiatric torture cannot just be cured magically once we arrive in the free world—it’s going to be a long, self-repeating, and difficult process.