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    In Analysis: Lawsuit Sparks Debate on China’s Therapy Standards

    A high-profile dispute between celebrity psychologist Li Songwei and a former client has led to discussion on the oversight for professional counselors in China.

    In the fall of 2023, a woman posting on social media under the name “Dongni” accused Li Songwei, a celebrity psychological counselor and life coach, of inappropriate intimate behavior during her treatment. Last month, they finally had their day in court — only it was the alleged victim who was under scrutiny.

    On May 17, the Beijing Internet Court, which specializes in online disputes, heard a defamation lawsuit filed by Li against Wang Xinmiao, the woman behind the posts, claiming that his reputation had been severely damaged. No ruling had been announced as of June 5. However, the case has reignited discussion among netizens about the regulation of psychological counseling and therapy in China.

    Wang, a former drama student in the United Kingdom, made her initial complaints using the Douban social networking platform last September. In these posts, which have since been deleted, she said that she had begun receiving counseling from Li for anxiety in the summer of 2014, shortly after becoming a single mother.

    She admitted that she quickly became infatuated. Wang wrote that, during their sessions, Li would talk about the similarities in their lives and share details about his own family. He would praise her, hold her hand, and give her “deep hugs,” which she interpreted as deep affection. Then, a year into her treatment, they allegedly kissed, and Wang professed her love to him.

    Wang said that shortly after a sexual encounter in the consultation room, Li decided to call off their relationship, which she claims made her slip deeper into depression. Li later went on to gain national fame after appearing as an expert on the popular TV dating shows “Go For Spring” and “See You Again,” also winning many online fans for his practical advice on dating, parenting, and workplace behaviors.

    Li, who is married, has vehemently and repeatedly denied Wang’s allegations. His lawsuit states that “only a legal and compliant psychological counseling service relationship existed” between the two parties.

    Before the hearing, Li also issued a written response to The Paper in which he stressed, “I have never committed sexual assault, nor have I ever been in a personal relationship with any client.” He added that he is confident that “more scrutiny and discussion will help clarify my personal dilemma in the era of self-made media.”

    In court, Wang’s attorney, Huang Simin, provided a series of posts from the instant messaging app WeChat and China’s Twitter-like platform Weibo, records of payments made by Wang to Li’s clinic between 2014 and 2018, and testimonies from relatives and friends to whom Wang revealed she was emotionally involved with Li.

    Huang had earlier told reporters that the plaintiff’s legal team planned to introduce as evidence notes from Li and Wang’s counseling sessions, but it was refusing to share these in advance, citing concerns over client confidentiality.

    So far, Wang has made no criminal complaint against Li regarding his behavior while she was receiving treatment. However, shortly after the hearing on May 17, she did report Li to the Beijing Public Security Bureau, accusing him of disclosing sensitive information relating to an ongoing trial via his personal WeChat account.

    Question of ethics

    While the case is ongoing, some observers have raised concerns over the apparent lack of oversight on private psychological services in China, especially as the people who use such services can often be in a vulnerable mental state.

    The Chinese Psychological Society (CPS), a nonprofit academic organization, keeps a national register of clinical psychology and counseling institutions and professionals. According to its code of ethics, last updated in 2018, “Once a relationship between the two parties goes beyond professional boundaries (such as a sexual or intimate relationship), appropriate measures should be taken immediately and the professional relationship should be terminated.”

    The CPS says members found in breach of its code of ethics can face expulsion. However, being listed in the system is not a legal requirement for counselors providing psychological services in the country — its main purpose is to enhance the field’s “value” and provide a criterion that assists state universities and hospitals in recruiting qualified professionals.

    Mu Zhou, a Chinese netizen living overseas who is supporting Wang’s team with research, says he wrote to the organization’s ethics committee at the beginning of this year to lodge an official complaint against Li, a registered member, and provided “relevant materials” upon request. The CPS did launch an investigation into Li, but on March 16 Mu received an email informing him that it had been suspended due to the defamation lawsuit.

    In general, Huang says, the current laws and regulations are not comprehensive, especially when it comes to self-proclaimed counselors, and that it’s hard for victims to seek legal redress against harmful behavior. As character evidence, she submitted to the court testimony from an unnamed former client of Li’s who made a complaint about her treatment to the CPS in 2015 but received no response.

    Since Wang’s initial posts last year, people have been contacting her to air their grievances with psychological counselors. One woman said that, after spending a total of 15,000 yuan ($2,070) on sessions, her counselor had confessed to having romantic feelings for her and began a campaign of harassment.

    Huang says she has also received many requests for legal support over similar disputes, such as from a fresh graduate in her 20s who found a counselor online who demanded she send nude photos.

    Protecting both parties

    The book “Ethics in Psychology and the Mental Health Professions: Standards and Cases,” co-authored by Gerald P. Koocher, former president of the American Psychological Association, lists almost 20 real-life disputes adjudicated by the association’s ethics committees or courts across the United States. These range from instances of inappropriate hugging to psychologists stripping off to “help clients overcome body shame” and even serious sexual assault. False allegations and misunderstandings are also common.

    To mitigate the risks, the book advises psychologists to pay attention to many details, such as avoiding meetings with clients outside of work, refraining from casually complimenting them, and keeping track of friendly gestures.

    Jiang Shan, a counselor with six years of experience, says that all psychologists in the U.S. need to work with supervisors — usually more experienced industry peers with whom they can consult about ongoing cases — and keep detailed records. “The oversight is strict. Supervisors’ licenses are tied to those they supervise. If something goes wrong with the counselor, the supervisor is also held responsible.” However, he says the mechanism in China is less effective.

    To register with the CPS, counselors must first present a recommendation letter signed by a “supervisor.” But industry insiders told The Paper that there are no strict guidelines on who can serve as a supervisor.

    The CPS code of conduct for counselors, published online in 2023, explains that there are four levels of professional counselors in China, rising from the lowest level — assistant counselors — through level one. Only those holding level one and two vocational certificates issued by the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security are allowed to work independently, while those with a level three certificate and assistant counselors need to be overseen by “psychological supervisors.” This can be anyone with a higher level of certification.

    “Psychological supervisors play a more professional and advanced role in the field of counseling, not only providing counseling support to clients but also supervising and guiding peer counselors to ensure the professionalism and quality of counseling services,” according to the CPS website.

    However, Jiang says high-quality supervisors are expensive, charging thousands of yuan for just 60 minutes of work in some cases. “It’s not value for money,” he says. “To cover those kinds of costs you’d need to have a very long client list just to scrape by.”

    Against this backdrop, Li’s lawsuit against Wang has drawn significant attention among industry professionals.

    Fu Rui, a counselor who is assisting Wang’s legal team, says, “In a consultation room, the roles and status of the counselor and the client are unequal and can easily be misunderstood as one of authority.” However, seemingly basic ethics are not an industry consensus. Plus, with TV and the internet, many counselors are now more focused on building their personal brand to attract followers and potential clients, she says.

    As popularity on social media can require promoting one’s personality and principles, industry insiders and service users say this places the psychologists and counselors who choose this path in a precarious position.

    When it comes to therapists expressing their personal values, Mu cites the CPS code of ethics: “Counselors should be fully aware of their values and their potential impact on clients seeking professional support, respect clients’ values, and avoid imposing their values on clients or making important decisions for them.”

    Reported by Ge Mingning, Li Xiayan, Tang Chao, and Xia Chunxi.

    A version of this article originally appeared in The Paper. It has been translated and edited for brevity and clarity, and is republished here with permission.

    Translator: Vincent Chow; editors: Xue Ni and Hao Qibao.

    (Header image: VectorStock/VCG, reedited by Sixth Tone)