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In Beijing, Feng Xiaoyan distributed flyers promoting democratic reform, criticizing social injustice and calling for China’s president to be elected.

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The woman speaks from behind the thick hospital glass, her voice muffled. “I told them I’m not sick, and I don’t know why I ended up here,” Feng Xiaoyan says.

Ms. Feng, 51, is a member of China’s ruling Communist Party, who works as a government researcher in Linyi, her hometown some 550 kilometres south of Beijing. But ever since the protests that led to the bloody crackdown at Tiananmen Square in 1989, she has harboured misgivings about the system. Occasionally, she protested.

But in April, she travelled to Beijing to demand change, driven in part by frustrations over the country’s response to the coronavirus, including the initial efforts to limit information that amounted to “government’s failure to fulfill its role,” said her daughter, Alice Yang.

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“After COVID-19 broke out, she told me that she could no longer stand the malfeasance and gangster-like actions within the system,” Ms. Yang said. “So she decided to go to Beijing on April 28 to say what was on her mind.”

In Beijing, Ms. Feng distributed flyers promoting democratic reform, criticizing social injustice and calling for China’s president to be elected.

Her one-woman protest ended with her at the Linyi No. 4 People’s Hospital, which has a history of employing controversial mental-health treatments. Doctors have diagnosed her with schizophrenia and, her daughter says, forced her to take medicines that leave her body weak and her mind feeble.

But her short-lived demonstration is a rare window into how, for some in China, failures in the virus response – including the silencing of doctors who raised early concerns and a widespread belief that the country’s COVID-19 numbers have been inaccurate – have hardened grievances against the country’s direction under President Xi Jinping.

Chinese officials have insisted their management of the coronavirus pandemic was astute and effective. “We have turned the tide on the virus and protected the life and health of our people,” Mr. Xi told the World Health Assembly in May. “All along, we have acted with openness, transparency and responsibility.” The disparity between the country’s comparatively small official death toll and the much worse performance in Western democracies has also underpinned a broad sense in China, driven in part by state media, that the country’s authoritarian system delivered better results than others. Although many have questioned the accuracy of its numbers, China has reported three COVID-19 deaths per million people, compared with 160 in Canada, 287 in the United States and 596 in Spain.

In the early days of the pandemic in China, media outlets and Internet users raised piercing questions about the country’s management of the virus. Those concerns coalesced into an explosion of public outrage after the death of Li Wenliang, a doctor forcibly silenced by authorities after he raised alarm over the spread of a new virus in December. In the hours after his death, people openly demanded freedom of speech, more transparency from Chinese leaders and even full democratic rights.

Since then, China’s sophisticated censorship apparatus has drawn a curtain over online criticism, while state media rain praise on the country’s leaders and play down the pandemic’s economic toll.

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Ms. Yang believes her mother, too, has been caught up in the bid to quiet dissent over the virus, particularly ahead of the meetings of the Chinese rubber-stamp parliament that began this week. Ms. Yang herself was ordered this week to delete comments about her mother from the internet.

The Globe and Mail sent detailed questions about Ms. Feng to the foreign affairs office in Linyi. A person from that office called back to answer questions, but declined to provide her name. The Linyi official confirmed that Ms. Feng is in the Linyi No. 4 People’s Hospital.

In March, 2019, Ms. Feng was “detained for picking a quarrel, and on June 1, was diagnosed as having paranoid schizophrenia by a hospital in Tianjin,” the official said. On two occasions since – October, 2019, and January, 2020 – family members in Linyi called for help, and “the diagnosis given by the hospital was also schizophrenia,” the official said.

“She has been diagnosed with schizophrenia by two hospitals,” the official said. “So she's truly mentally ill.”

Ms. Yang offered different explanations. Her mother had gone to Tianjin and done “something against the will of the Communist Party,” she said. Ms. Feng was hospitalized last fall after supporting protesters in Hong Kong. And it was a family fight that led to her being taken away in January, Ms. Yang said. Her mother was quickly released that time.

The Linyi No. 4 People’s Hospital has been controversial in China. It has been home to an internet addiction treatment centre led by Yang Yongxin, a doctor called a “devil” by state media for some of the methods he employed against young people diagnosed with internet addiction. Those methods, Chinese media reported, included electric-shock treatment and giving powerful psychiatric drugs to patients without their consent. Mr. Yang’s centre was closed in 2016, but he remains a vice-president at the hospital.

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China banned the use of electroconvulsive therapy for internet addiction in 2009, but the practice continues to be used to treat schizophrenia.

Since her mother’s arrest after the trip to Beijing, Ms. Yang has returned frequently to the hospital. She was allowed to briefly speak with her mother a few weeks ago after threatening to commit suicide herself. It was that conversation she recorded and shared with The Globe and Mail.

“I told them I was healthy, but taking their medicines has made me sick,” Ms. Feng says on the video.

“Most doctors here are very tough. If you refuse to take the medicine, they will grab your neck and squeeze the medicine into your mouth.”

Ms. Feng has been a life-long advocate of democratic reforms in China. As a journalism student, she was initially drawn to the Tiananmen Square protests for professional reasons, but her complaints about the Chinese system deepened when she subsequently began work for the local government. Last year, she openly supported Hong Kong’s protest movement. She also applied, unsuccessfully, to rescind her membership in the party. She opposed internal factions that covered up wrongdoing and the corruption she saw, Ms. Yang said.

Ms. Yang says her mother has discovered that there is little room for someone with her views, particularly as a party member.

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Now, she has no idea how long Ms. Feng will be detained, but she worries that if her mother’s detainment continues, she will indeed become mentally ill.

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