The number of internet users is exploding in China. Millions of young Chinese are so hooked on cyberspace that the government calls them addicts. Special clinics have been formed where harsh methods serve to get these kids off line again. Then came the first casualties.

This story was published by Belgian magazine HUMO and by the Netherlands Press Association, then the largest newspaper group in the Netherlands. 




in BEIJING, China


Deng Shenshan (15) was supposed to return home from the clinic on 30 August, after completing a thirty day treatment to help him get rid of his internet addiction. The thing is, Deng is dead. He didn't even make it through his first 24 hours at the clinic.

His uncle, Li Jian, went public only once with Deng's story, telling it to state controlled newspaper China Daily.

'A few years ago my nephew started to get addicted to online games', Li tells the paper. 'His parents tried to convince him not to spend so much time on the computer, but Deng refused to listen.'

Weekends Deng would be online without a break. This past summer, his parents had had enough. They paid seven thousand yuan to book Deng into a month long addiction treatment at a special clinic in southern China's Guangxi autonomous region.

'They dropped their son off at the clinic on 1 August', Deng's uncle Li recounts. 'They signed a contract, stating any means necessary were allowed to rid Deng of his addiction as long as his health would not be damaged'.

It is now clear Deng was put into isolation right after entering the clinic. Li: 'Then they made him run five kilometers on his first night at the clinic. Staff beat him up because Deng ran too slow they thought. That same night, the clinic called Deng's father, telling him to come collect his son's lifeless body from the morgue. Deng's face was bloody, his wrists showed marks of the handcuffs they had put on him.'

The clinic where Deng died and where 122 youth were still being held has now been shut down. Thirteen staff members have been arrested.


Throughout China similar clinics have opened over the past few years. Each claims to have the proven treatment to help Chinese youth shake their addiction to the internet. According to the All China Internet and Youth Association, there are currently four hundred such clinics in the country. A handful aside, none of them are registered with the Ministry of Public Health.


Over the past few weeks, multiple accounts of mistreatment in the clinics have surfaced. Summer is the peak season, due to the school holidays. There's the story of the clinic that used electric shocks to battle the addiction. Or the tale from the clinic where a kid was forced to stand straight from two o'clock in the afternoon until five the next morning.

Photos surfaced of a clinic in southern China, showing children throwing out notes from the barred windows. On them they had written 'SOS' and 'We get beaten'. A clinic up north chose to send 135 youth into the barren dessert of Inner Mongolia to complete a walking tour of 28 days and 850 kilometers as a treatment.



According to Tao Ran (47) the dangers of getting hooked on the internet loom larger over Chinese youth than addiction to smoking or getting overweight. Tan, psychologist at the Military Hospital in Beijing, doesn't believe physical treatments work to cure internet addiction.

,,It's a global phenomenon,'' Tao says, ,,but in China it's much more serious because of the one child policy. Being only child means you are your parents' only hope to become grandparents. They decide everything for their kid, putting it under extreme pressure.''

At school things aren't much better. Tao: ,,It's study, study, study. The kids memorize complete books, but don't learn how to have fun in their spare time, or how to make friends. All around our young kids is this continuous reminder they have to perform at their very best and get high grades.''

The internet gives these students a perfect escape from their highly pressurized lives. Tao: ,,Online, they are completely free. All of a sudden no one is chasing them with yet another exam paper. The internet is their perfect hiding place from the stress of real life, their place to get lost. But a growing number cannot find the way back to the real world on their own.''

Most online addicts in China can be found among 14- to 19-year olds. Tao: ,,They see reality as this grey mist around them. The only color they find in their lives comes from a computer screen. Lacking any real friends, surfing online is their only activity on many days.''


The internet is exploding in China at an ever faster pace. In 2000 there were 22.5 million Chinese online, or fewer than two per cent of the entire population. These days, China is the country with most 'netizens': there are 338 million of them, over 25 per cent of the population.

More than two thirds of them are younger than 30 years old and out of that group a third is under 20 years of age. According to government statistics, 25 million of these young internet users are addicted as they spend more than six hours each day online. In other words: one in five young Chinese internet users has a cyber addiction and needs treatment.

To compare, in the Netherlands the number of people who cannot log off on their own is decreasing. The Dutch Institute for Addiction Research claims fewer than three per cent of 13- and 14-year olds are addicted. In 2006 that number stood at 4.2 percent. The institute says better education on internet use contributed to this decline.



Every time Tian Li (18) hits the boxing ball, the chain on which the ball hangs from the ceiling squeaks. Tian is slamming it in the 'Aggression Room' of the Internet Addiction Clinic found by Tao Ran. Steel bars on the windows separate the inside from outside. The walls of the room are covered with leather cushions.

The clinic is situated on a military base about an hour's drive south of downtown Beijing. The terrain is sealed off from the outside world. The entrance gate carries the red star of the People's Liberation Army.

At the start of his therapy, Tian, dressed in a military outfit, paid a lot of visits to the Aggression Room. ,,It's a good place to vent your anger and energy'', he says quietly. ,,My parents deceived me when they brought me here. They told me we were going on a short holiday trip to the countryside. It wasn't until after a few hours driving, when we arrived at the gate of this base, that I realized they had lied to me.''

He felt deep hatred towards his parents for doing this to him. ,,At home I sat behind the computer at least twelve hours a day. Until early morning I would play games like CrossFire for months on end. At school I would catch up on sleep instead of paying attention. My parents and my friends told me I had a problem, but I couldn't control myself anymore. Then, when I came to this clinic, it all ended from one moment to the next. No more internet. That threw me into a deep depression.''


Tian gets out of the Aggression Room, walks down the dimly lit hallway and enters the Play Room. Here, the walls are covered with drawings of tropical beaches. There's a sandbox filled with small, plastic palm trees in one corner. Shelves are filled with toys.

,,The youngsters can choose what they want to play with'', says doctor Zheng Ji Ping who works with the internet addicts. ,,It helps us to determine what is going on inside their heads. For example, if they choose to play house in the sandbox, it tells us they probably come from a warm family home and are missing that.''

Next door is a room with two bunk beds. On every mattress lies an army bag, army clothes and a set of training rifles.

Zheng: ,,We send the kids down the military obstacle course on base every now and then. They run and they learn to shoot. That way we hope they realize there are nicer things in life than just playing online games all day. At the same time the military training teaches them to work with others.''


Tian gets to go back home soon. ,,I expect things will be better from now on'', he says. ,,I have learned to control myself. I want to start playing basketball more often, instead of gaming. I have realized it is proof of a very, very weak character if you want nothing else in life but to be online.''

There have been no reports about abusive treatments at this clinic. The daily schedule shows a lot of time spent in group talks. Since it opened in 2004 over five thousand teenagers have been treated here.

That's only a small portion of the 25 million the government brands as internet addicts. So it's no surprise eager entrepreneurs try to cash in on the demand from parents by offering treatments in improvised clinics, without ever having studied what a treatment should entail.


'Pain builds character', says the ad of the Unconventional Education and Training Centre, which labels itself as a prominent clinic for internet addicts near Chengdu in central China. Pu Liang (14) got sent there by his mother, after he spent night after night at internet cafes.

The news that came out this week about Pu is bad. After three consecutive beatings by clinic staff, Pu ended up in hospital with broken ribs, failing kidneys and internal bleeding. The police report states Pu was beaten for failing to do enough push-ups.