BEIJING - Chinese provincial authorities lock up critics and complainants in mental hospitals, local media reported in a rare look at official abuse of China's psychiatric health system.

According to an article in the Beijing News, Shandong provincial officials in the city of Xintai south of the capital committed people who were seeking to attract the attention of higher authorities to their complaints over local corruption or land seizures.

Some were forced to take psychiatric drugs and all were told they would not be released until they signed pledges to drop their complaints, the paper said.

The article appeared in the Beijing News on Monday and has been widely reproduced by other media. It also prompted a highly critical editorial yesterday in the English-language China Daily, a newspaper targeted at foreigners.

The paper's allegations could not immediately be verified independently. An administrator with the Xintai Mental Health Hospital named in the report denied abuses.

"We are now repudiating this rumor. Some people were so irresponsible in talking. Some facts are completely made up," said the man, who refused to give his name. Other local officials said the reports were being investigated.

However, the China Daily editorial yesterday cited the report as clear evidence that officials had abused their authority.

"Oppressing petitioners is no way to govern or to redress their grievances," said the editorial, beneath the headline "Stop this cruelty."

The Beijing News report was picked up by other state media, including the Web site of the Communist Party's flagship People's Daily.

That marks the first time in years that this issue has been given such a high profile, said Robin Munro, a research associate with the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies.

Munro, who has researched abuse claims extensively, said that could represent a desire to prompt a crackdown on misuse of mental hospitals to silence critics, which he said had grown more popular as other police powers to detain were eliminated.

"Criminal justice is actually getting better, and a modicum of due process is required for detention," Munro said. Mental hospitals used to skirt such rules, putting critics out of action, breaking their spirits and discrediting their complaints, he said.

Chinese law gives authorities wide-ranging powers to commit people without recourse to lawyers or appeal, making the system ripe for abuse, he said.

The Shandong case is in line "with what I've been tracking in recent years," Munro said.

Huang Yueqin, deputy director of the Institute of Mental Health at the prestigious Peking University, said that she was unfamiliar with such abuses but that they would constitute a serious violation of medical ethics.

"I don't think the mental health hospitals would take people in only because they are petitioners," Huang said, adding that such facilities were often short of beds to begin with.

While Chinese officials deny institutionalizing petitioners simply for complaining, many are quick to affirm that they believe many to be mentally ill.