A petitioner who was sent to psychiatric hospitals has been sentenced to four years in prison for taking money from stability maintenance personnel, The Paper reported.

Xu Xueling, a 53 year old petitioner, demanded RMB 37,700 (HK$43,818) from government staff responsible for “stability control” in the town of Quangou by threatening to petition in Beijing, the Shangdong Tai’an Intermediate court decided. It upheld a verdict by a lower court that found Xu guilty of “provocation and causing a disturbance” in April.

The Tai’an Intermediate Court. Photo: tazy.sdcourt.gov.cn.

Stability maintenance, or stability control, officers are overseen by the Office of the Central Working Group on Stability Maintenance. Similar to the state security police, they often keep tabs on activists, petitioners and lawyers and pressure them not to commit certain acts, such as communicating with other activists and petitioners, said Patrick Poon, a researcher at Amnesty International.

In a statement, Xu said that she did not ask for money; it was given to her by staff because they were afraid that she would petition. This does not count as being “forcibly taken,” as the crime of “provocation and causing a disturbance” constitutes, said her lawyer. Petitioning is a state-recognised system for citizens to lodge grievances against local governments in China.

One staff member in Quangou gave her RMB 10,000 in cash to stay home and take care of her illness instead of going to petition in Beijing, Xu testified. Other payments were given as loans.

Xu Xueling. Photo: The Paper.

The government staff testified that they gave the money to Xu, with some payments approved by supervisors beforehand.

Public Security offices in Beijing warned Xu many times for conducting “abnormal petitioning,” but she persisted in coercing stability maintenance personnel into giving her money, the verdict read.

Xu’s lawyer said that Xu was not guilty of the crime of “provocation and causing a disturbance.” The payments were approved by higher-ups at Quangou town’s government, and so did not count as them “being threatened.” The government had the right to refuse the payment, he said.

Xu’s brother said that he would appeal the case at Shandong’s High Court.

Mental illness

Xu started petitioning ten years ago because her sister was beat up. In 2008 she was determined to have “hysteria” and put into a psychiatric hospital by local authorities. After her sister’s matter was settled by negotiation, she started petitioning again to protest her hospitalisation, reported The Paper. In 2009, Xu was again put into a psychiatric hospital.

Xu Xueling. Photo: The Paper.

After Xu was criminally detained under suspicion of “provocation and causing a disturbance” in May 2015, she underwent an evaluation saying she exhibited no sign of mental illness, which was later verified by two courts.

Rights groups have criticised China’s political use of psychiatric hospitals to detain dissidents and activists. NGO Chinese Human Rights Defenders said in a May briefing that “forced commitment in psychiatric facilities remains a common form of retaliation and punishment by Chinese authorities against activists and government critics.”

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Catherine Lai

Catherine is a Canadian journalist and photographer who lived in Beijing for almost two years, working in TV and online media. Aside from Hong Kong and mainland affairs, she is also interested in urban spaces, art and feminism. She holds a BA in Literature and Art History from the University of British Columbia.