BEIJING — A military-style boot camp in Beijing's suburbs is at the front line of China's battle against Internet addiction, a disorder that the government claims is afflicting millions of its children. The camp run by an army colonel is where desperate parents are sending their children in the hopes of weaning them off online games, cybersex and chats.
The China Young Mental Development Base in Daxing district uses a blend of therapy and military drills to treat children such as 18-year-old Wang Dewei, the son of middle-class officials in the Hebei province. He says they forced him to come here.
"I had constant arguments with my parents, and instead of heading home after school I used to sneak off to an Internet café," he says. "The first time I saw the psychologists I started crying because my parents had tricked me. They told me we were going to Beijing on a day trip and instead they took me here. They just want me to study so I can make money."
Center director Dr. Tao Ran says most of the patients here come from wealthy families. Treatment costs more than $1,000 a month.
"They are generally the children of government officials or businessmen," Tao says. "They are from the wealthy middle class that puts a lot of pressure on their children. This creates conflicts and inferiority complexes."
Until recently, most of the children here were about 18 years old. But now the center is seeing children as young as 12 being sent here, and 90% of them are boys.
In today's class, Wang and the others are watching a documentary about the human body. One guy is asleep on the row of chairs. In a few minutes, he will have to march around the concrete grounds with the others wearing army-style uniforms.
Camp military instructor Guo Ming is just 24, not much older than most of the patients.
"Due to their sluggish and disorderly lifestyles, they are weak when they arrive, so we give them physical training to increase their energy levels, and they improve very quickly," Guo says. "They play basketball, volleyball and football here. But we don't train them in combat sports. If they feel aggressive, there is a special room when you can let off steam by beating up a pillow."
Li Hua, the camp's deputy director, says it's important that they learn how to be team players. "It's important they obey the group, because at home they always object to their mothers and fathers," he says.
The Chinese way
Here they attend group and individual counseling sessions that Tao characterizes as uniquely "Chinese."
"This means that I'm not a psychologist who just sits and listens without interfering with my patient's inner life," he says. "I tell them what is good and what is not. This is the Chinese side, as well as the physical training."
He says the centers treats around 100 patients each month. Before 2008, the rehab center had a success rate of around 30%, but he estimates the figure is now closer to 85%. The parents are also required to attend boot camp on weekends, staying in a building on the opposite side of the courtyard.
Here they get lessons about how to deal with children without putting too much pressure on them.
Wang Dewei, who has been here for six months, is coming to the end of his treatment. The camp staff consider him a "model patient," and he's allowed to wear a camouflage uniform, like the military trainers, instead of the standard-issue green one.
He says he doesn't feel the need to go back to the computer and his relationship with his parents is getting better. He's looking forward to going home and is now a keen basketball player.