By all accounts, Li Ao, an 18-year-old man in Anhui province, was well-behaved but for the fact that he had seemingly lost interest in everything except the Internet, according to his mother.
So when Liu Dongmei read about an Internet addiction treatment center in Fuyang city and the success stories it touted, she was hopeful it would help her son. This center promised gentler approaches, such as physical activity and psychological counseling, instead of the extreme treatments for which some of China’s other Internet addiction “boot camps” have gained notoriety.
On August 3, Liu and her husband checked their son into the center. They had agreed to pay 22,800 yuan, or nearly $3,500, so Li Ao could stay for 180 days.
Two days later, they received a phone call. Li Ao had been taken to the hospital, where he died.
Several days after his death, the distraught parents appeared on Anhui Television to describe what had happened to their son – and the shocking discovery they made when they saw his body at the mortuary: scars and bruises over his torso, arms and legs.
“His entire body was bruised,” Liu told AHTV, weeping uncontrollably.
Li Ao’s father sat stone-faced on the edge of the bed during the interview, clutching a single tissue.
“It hadn’t even been 48 hours since we dropped him off,” Li Tao told the news station. “After a day and a half, our child was gone.”
Chinese media outlets have said that the Fuyang center has been shut down while authorities investigate how the teenager died, according to BBC News. But Li Ao’s death is the latest high-profile incident involving Chinese Internet addiction “boot camps” and the controversial measures some have taken to try to break teenagers’ Internet habits.
In 2009, a 15-year-old in Guangxi province died two days after checking into an Internet addiction center, having been beaten by his trainers, according to the South China Morning Post. In 2014, a 19-year-old girl named Guo Lingling died at a center in Henan province after suffering head and neck injuries; her “training” had consisted of being repeatedly picked up, dropped and kicked on the ground, the newspaper reported.
Last year, a 16-year-old girl from Heilongjiang province made national headlines after she tied her mother to a chair for a week and starved her to death, reportedly as retribution for being sent to an Internet addiction treatment center against her will. As The Washington Post’s Simon Denyer and Gu Jinglu reported, the girl had suffered beatings and other abuses at the camp:
“In February, the girl was forcibly taken away by two strange men in a car and driven to the camp in faraway Shandong province, only escaping four months later, the paper reported. In an online journal, she later complained that trainers had beaten students for no reason and ordered those who did not behave to eat in front of the pit latrine.
“In a journal post published on Aug. 25, she wrote: “When you mentioned it to your relatives, they all said: ‘Isn’t it all in the past? We love you, you should forget all those things.'”
” ‘I am angry. People point at my nose and call me unfilial and worse than a beast,’ she wrote. ‘It was them who sent me there. It was them who cursed me and beat me, it was them who sabotaged my life and libeled my character; but it was also them who said they loved me. My friends here, if it were you, what would you do?’
“The girl shot photographs and video of her mother tied up in the chair, demanding thousands of dollars from her aunt to release her, ostensibly so she could go to a physics school in the city of Harbin. The money was sent, but by then the girl discovered her mother was already dying. She called an ambulance, but it arrived too late to save her mother.”
In 2008, China formally declared “Internet addiction” a clinical disorder. “China’s Web Junkies,” a 2014 short documentary published by the New York Times, went into the Daxing Internet Addiction Treatment Center and found staff there using military-style tactics to treat the uniform-clad “patients.” Those at the camp slept in bunk beds and were ordered to wake up for physical drills.
“Normal people can’t imagine how these teenagers in our center use the Internet,” Tao Ran, director of the Daxing Internet Addiction Treatment Center, said in the documentary. “Some kids are so hooked on these games. They think taking a restroom break will affect their performance at these games. So they wear a diaper. That’s why we call it electronic heroin.”
That short documentary later became “Web Junkie,” a full-length PBS documentary released in 2015, following three Chinese teenagers from the beginning of their stint in Internet addiction treatment centers to when they were released.
“We decided to go to China because China is where this phenomenon is in the extreme, but it’s also really a mirror to what’s happening in the world because this is a global phenomenon,” documentary co-director Hilla Medalia said in an online interview released with “Web Junkie.”
In 2009, China’s Health Ministry advised a ban on electric shock treatments at the Internet addiction “boot camps,” though many questioned whether the centers would comply. Early this year, state media reported draft regulations that would prohibit “electric shock therapy, beatings and other abusive methods” at such camps, according to the Telegraph.