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China's Internet-addiction camps turn deadly

One teen is hospitalized after being beaten at a facility that promised to wean him from the Web. Weeks earlier, a boy was killed at another camp. Now the extreme methods are in the spotlight.

August 22, 2009|Barbara Demick

BEIJING — Like many mothers, Li Shubing despaired over her inability to control her teenage son. The 14-year-old often stayed out all night playing games in an Internet cafe. He neglected his studies.

So when she learned of a summer camp in rural Sichuan province that was promising to cure Internet addiction, she enrolled her son for a one-month course at $715. No matter that the camp boasted extreme methods -- "suffering can help a person improve," read one of the advertisements -- Li thought a little discipline would be just the ticket to whip her son into shape.

The youth, Pu Liang, now lies hospitalized in critical condition with broken ribs, kidney damage and internal bleeding. Removed from the camp by police last week, he told his parents he had been beaten by a counselor and fellow campers after he was unable to complete a rigorous regimen of push-ups.

"I never imagined they could be so cruel to treat a child like this," said Li, who runs a carpentry shop in Chengdu, Sichuan province. "I only wanted him to straighten out his life."

Less than three weeks earlier, another teen was beaten to death at a similar boot camp for Internet addiction in Nanning, Guangxi province. The boy, 15-year-old Deng Senshan, had been at the camp less than 48 hours when he died. Thirteen people have been arrested and the camp closed.

The incidents shed light on the strange phenomenon of using extreme methods to wean children off the Internet. By the estimate of the China Youth Internet Assn., there are 300 camps in the country devoted to Internet addiction.

Methods for addressing the so-called addiction include electric shock therapy and antidepressants, but some camp administrators more benignly send their campers to climb mountains and immerse themselves in nature. Some employ former members of the People's Liberation Army, outfitting their campers in fatigues and drilling them in military marching formations.

To a large extent, the camps follow the logic of Mao Tse-tung's movement in the late 1960s and '70s to send urban youths to the countryside; only this time, it is the parents themselves who are sending their children.

"Mao was correct in his ideas. If a kid is from the city, he has to go to the countryside," said Wu Yongjin, who runs the Chinese Unconventional Education Training Center, the camp where Pu Liang was injured, in Deyang City, Sichuan province. "It is even more important nowadays when children are so spoiled."

Wu defends the use of extreme methods for treating extreme cases. He cites one boy who held a knife to his mother's throat to get money to use the Internet and another teenager who was so pampered that he couldn't wash his hair alone. Wu says he teaches them valuable skills that elude many teenagers, like doing their own laundry and cooking.

"It's OK to beat them, just as long as you make sure they don't really get hurt," said Wu, who blames Pu's critical injuries on a counselor inexperienced in administering corporal punishment. The counselor was detained by police.

The Chinese Ministry of Health last month ordered a hospital in Shandong province to stop electric shock treatments, which it had reported using on 3,000 youths.

One high school student complained of being forced to stand from 2 p.m. to 5 a.m., and not being allowed to sleep or eat.

"It's not a place for human beings," the student, Xiao Zhang, complained to the Southern Metropolitan Daily.

When the newspaper sent its reporters to another camp in the southern city of Guangzhou, teens attached messages to shoes, water bottles and paper airplanes that they threw out of their dormitory windows, the paper said. One photograph showed teenagers hanging a bedsheet reading "SOS" from a barred, upper-story window.

The camps advertise heavily, but often they are not what they claim. Li Shubing had only visited a recruiting office in Chengdu before sending her son.

"After my son was injured, my husband and I went out to the countryside to see. We were shocked. It was just a tiny shack, all run down," Li said.

Kong Lingzhong, who in 2004 started one of the first Internet addiction camps near Beijing, ridiculed his competitors' coercive methods.

"You can't cure somebody of an addiction unless they want to do it themselves," said Kong. "I believe it is a matter of education, helping the child realize the difference between reality and the virtual world, showing them nature and how much more appealing reality can be."

Xiao Li, an 18-year-old from Sichuan province who recently completed a one-month course with Kong, said the camp made him realize that he had lost himself playing games all night.

"When I get back home, for sure I'll still play games, but I think I realized I need to control myself more," he said.

Tao Hongkai, a sociologist who has written widely on the subject, said that several factors lead Chinese youths to obsess about the Internet: heavy pressure for the only child to succeed, the boring curriculum in most Chinese schools and the lack of leisure facilities.

"A hundred years ago we had opium dens," Tao said. "Now we have these [cafes], which are the equivalent of spiritual opium."

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barbara.demick@latimes.com

Tommy Yang and Nicole Liu of The Times' Beijing Bureau contributed to this report.

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