China: Teenager dies in Internet rehab

By enquirewithin · Aug 28, 2009 · Updated Aug 28, 2009 · ·
  1. enquirewithin
    A teenager was allegedly beaten to death by counselors at an Internet addiction rehabilitation clinic in Nanning, Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region.
    The 15-year-old middle school graduate, surnamed Deng, was pronounced dead around 3 am Sunday at Wuxu town health center in Nanning, China's national radio website reported on Sunday. View attachment 10404

    The medical record showed the boy had no pulse or blood pressure when he was taken to the hospital.

    He was to stay in the camfrom Aug 1 to Sept 1 in order to "get away from bad behavior, regain confidence and establish positive life attitudes," according to an agreement Deng's parents signed with the center. "The center can take necessary approaches including punishment to educate the teenager, as long as the approaches will not abuse the child or impair his health," the agreement said.

    The center charged 7,000 yuan ($1,000) and promised to "take care of Deng, and supervise the teenager 24 hours a day in the first few days of the training".

    Deng's parents wanted the camp to treat Internet addiction (IA) for their son who had no criminal record or other behavioral problems, the unnamed parents told the report. Experts and educators yesterday denounced the camp's extreme act.

    "Though there is no nationwide diagnostic standard and the IA recovery sector is still in its beginning stages, the tragedy shouldn't have happened," said Jiang Pu, Beijing bureau director of New Taste Family Education Institute.

    "This kind of punishment for treating IA should be banned," he said. Xia Lingxiang, a psychology professor with Chongqing-based Southwest University, said the government should invest more into research to find the physiological and psychological mechanism of IA and then formulate a diagnostic standard. "Before the standard is set, all scientific approaches could be adopted to treat IA, but extreme approaches are unacceptable," he said.

    As of Sunday, more than 100 juveniles were still being "guided and trained" in the camp, it reported. Deng's parents arrived in the city from Ziyuan county of Guilin city on Sunday evening. "We have not heard about the incident yet," a press official of Nanning, who declined to be named, told China Daily yesterday.

    China Daily tried to contact the health center, but a doctor only giving her surname as Li was unclear whether the boy's body was moved and refused to comment further.

    The camp's organizer also could not be reached. China has 320 million Internet users. More than 10 million teenagers of the country's 100 million teenage Internet users are Internet addicts, according to China Youth Internet Association's survey last year.

    However, the lack of a nationwide diagnostic standard on IA has caused controversy over approaches to treatment. Last month, the Ministry of Health banned the use of electroshock therapy in the treatment of IA.

    By Lan Tian (China Daily) Updated: 2009-08-04 08:21


    Editor sacked for report on death at Internet rehab camp

    Local officials in the region where a boy was beaten to death at an Internet addiction camp have taken swift action - and fired the editor who ran the story.
    "As far as the story's coverage is concerned, I followed my conscience and did what I thought was right," Liu Yuan wrote in his blog at Liu first broke the story about the beating death of 15-year-old Deng Senshan at a rehab camp in the local Nanguo Morning Post (NMP) on Aug 4, attracting nationwide media coverage.

    "I hope my former colleagues at NMP will continue their efforts to successfully run the newspaper, while trying to avoid risks," he wrote. Deng was allegedly beaten to death by counselors at the Qihang Salvation Training Camp in Nanning, the Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region on Aug 2. "All Senshan's family members are very sad about the authorities' decision to fire the editor, while wondering if the reason behind it was that NMP reported the truth of my son's death openly and justly," said Deng Fei, the boy's father. "I don't think there was anything wrong with NMP's stories about my nephew's death," said Li Jian, the boy's uncle.

    Instead of sacking the editor, the local government should praise and encourage the newspaper to do more timely and accurate reports on citizens' interests, he said. "Liu was sacked because he made mistakes when he was in charge of the coverage on the Net-addicted boy's death," an officer with NMP told China Daily on condition of anonymity.

    The autonomous region's press authorities had not banned reporting on the boy's death, but had issued clear instructions on the coverage of the incident, said a journalist who refused to be named. Regional leaders were not pleased because NMP's report harmed Guangxi's image, she said. With a daily circulation of about 400,000, NMP is a tabloid under the Guangxi Daily.

    Liu, 35, is an experienced journalist who came to NMP last year. He formerly worked for in Beijing and Guangzhou-based Southern Metropolis News, said a journalist with Guangxi Daily.

    Another journalist with Guangxi Daily said an editor of Modern Life Daily newspaper, which is part of the same newspaper group, was also suspended. Autonomous government officials did not make any comments on the issue.

    "The media's supervision of government has met many difficulties because the government that oversees them still has many institutional problems," said Chi Fulin, a political advisor and president of the China Institute for Reform and Development. "There's still a long way to go to improve the government's disclosure of information and social supervision," he said.

    By Lan Tian (China Daily) Updated: 2009-08-27 07:48

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  1. justhowsherolls
    The camp in Qihang promised to cure children of so-called Internet addiction, an ailment that has grown into one of China’s most feared public health hazards. Illustration: Mark Weaver; background image: Getty; Sinopix

    Obsessed With the Internet: A Tale From China
    On a hot afternoon in August, a mother, father, and son climbed into their car and set out for the Qihang Salvation Training Camp in rural China. The facility was only a half hour from their hotel in Nanning, but the drive felt much longer to Deng Fei and Zhou Juan. In the backseat, their son, Deng Senshan, said almost nothing the entire way. He wore a sickish look as he gazed at the whizzing tableau of warehouses, unfinished buildings, and open fields of southern China’s Guangxi province. He didn’t want to go to the camp — who would? — but his parents felt they had no choice.

    The Qihang camp promised to cure children of so-called Internet addiction, an ailment that has grown into one of China’s most feared public health hazards. The camp’s brochure claimed that an estimated 80 percent of Chinese youth suffered from it. Fifteen-year-old Deng Senshan seemed to be among them. He was once a top student, but his grades had plummeted over the past couple of years, and he had stopped exercising almost completely. He spent most of his time playing games like World of Warcraft at Internet cafés or on his desktop computer. The Chinese news media was filled with terrifying stories of WOW-crazed kids dropping dead or killing their parents, and Deng Fei and Zhou Juan worried that they might lose their only son to a technological demon they barely understood. So they were lured in by the camp’s pledge to end his “bad behavior.”

    Yet when the place finally came into view, it wasn’t the traditional school-like setting Deng Fei had imagined. Instead, it looked more like a poorly tended jailhouse — decrepit three-story concrete building, barred windows, overgrown bushes. In the distance, through a field of high razor-edged grass, a factory smokestack spewed a black cloud. On a double basketball court, a gang of camouflage-clad teenagers were in the middle of a sweaty training session in the subtropical heat. Counselors, dressed in black shirts with military-police patches on their chests, stood watch.

    The family got out of the car. It was about 1 o’clock. “I don’t want to stay here,” Deng Senshan pleaded. Deng Fei suppressed a tinge of uncertainty as he looked at his son. “This will be good for you,” he promised. “You’ll be out in a month, fit and strong.” His mother joked that he’d get a bit of a suntan. But she, too, was trying to stifle anxieties. At one point, she pulled a counselor aside to ask why the camp was so remote and why children were forced to exercise in such heat. “At home, kids are much too comfortable,” he responded, and told her that hardship was part of the cure. “You don’t beat the kids, do you?” she asked. The man waved away the question, assuring her, “We use only psychological treatment here.”

    They didn’t get to say good-bye. This is what Deng Fei and Zhou Juan would remember afterward, the absence of closure. Deng Senshan’s parents handed over 7,000 yuan (about $1,000) for one month of treatment, then watched as their son was taken to a room just off the basketball court. Camp officials advised them to go. It was better for his recovery, they said. As she left, however, Zhou Juan couldn’t resist taking one last look at her son. Through a crack in the door, she saw him slumped in a chair, head bowed. “He looked so sad,” she recalls. “If he had looked up then and said, ‘Get me out of here,’ I would have taken him home.” He didn’t look up.

    The Internet is, famously, a nonstop disruption machine — overturning every business model, cultural institution, and societal norm it touches. But even by these anarchic standards, its destabilizing impact on Chinese society has been immense. The number of Internet users in the country has skyrocketed in the past 12 years from 620,000 to 338 million, making it the world’s largest and fastest-growing online population. And while China has embraced its newfound digital prowess — the national telecom company adds more than 700,000 broadband customers each month — the authoritarian government has also attempted to control it. It has fortified its “great firewall,” selectively blocking access to Google, YouTube, and Twitter. It has deployed a special Web police force, tens of thousands strong, to investigate and shut down online political dissent. It has hired a regiment of “secret Web commentators,” who post comments in praise of the state. And in July, it began developing the Green Dam Youth Escort, censoring software that can be preinstalled in new PCs.

    But as China has become wealthier and its young people more comfortable with the tools of the digital age, the Internet has emerged as an uncontrollable force. Signs of its impact are ubiquitous: in hangar-sized, 24-hour Internet clubs, where hundreds of adolescents spend hours wired to headsets in front of massive, glowing monitors; on, the labyrinthine social networking and instant messaging platform popular in China that has more than 480 million active IM accounts alone; and in the proliferation of stealth software that helps users sneak around state firewalls. Parents have always worried about the pernicious impact of youth culture, whether from comic books, rock and roll, or videogames. But in China’s rigid, hypercompetitive society, the Internet explosion represents more than a disciplinary annoyance. It is seen as an existential threat. And that helps explain why treating kids with supposed Internet addiction has become a national obsession.

    Qihang Salvation Training Camp, an Internet-addiction treatment facility, looked more like a poorly tended jailhouse. Photo: Sinopix

    The horror stories, which began appearing in the state-run newspapers as far back as 2002, fueled the panic: A fire in an unlicensed Internet café killed 25 people engaged in all-night gaming sessions; a Chengdu gaming addict died after playing Legend of Mir 2 for 20 straight hours in a Net club; two kids from Chongqing, exhausted after two days of online gaming, passed out on railroad tracks and were killed by a train; a Qingyuan boy butchered his father after a disagreement about his Internet use; a 13-year-old from Tianjin finished a 36-hour session of World of Warcraft and leaped off the roof of his 24-story building, hoping to “join the heroes of the game,” as one newspaper summary of his suicide note put it.

    The Chinese government reacted quickly and forcefully. Teens were officially banned from Web cafés, an edict that police enforced through periodic raids. The government stopped issuing licenses for new cafés and shut down thousands of illegal establishments — 16,000 in 2004. Three years ago, it began requiring gaming companies to develop anti-addiction safeguards that would limit play after three hours. And a year ago, government officials began to talk about formally defining Internet addiction as a clinical disorder. But the most visible initiative by far was the boot camp.

    Beijing’s Military General Hospital created the country’s first center in 2004. It was the brainchild of Tao Ran, a military researcher and colonel in the People’s Liberation Army. A compact man with an animated face who had become well-known for treating drug addicts, Tao opened his camp at the edge of the city in a fortified military compound. The facility — which employed a fusion of therapy, physical training, and medication — has treated more than 5,000 people to date, most of them teens.

    Tao’s camp proved hugely successful and won international acclaim. (In 2007, Reuters described it as “the front line of China’s battle.”) Before long, similar deprogramming centers began popping up throughout Asia — in South Korea, Thailand, and Vietnam.

    Even health experts in the US began worrying about Internet addiction. In 2006, a Stanford University study found that one in eight American adults showed signs of Web addiction. In 2008, Jerald J. Block, an Oregon psychotherapist, argued in The American Journal of Psychiatry that Internet addiction should be included in the next Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the bible of the mental health industry. “Despite the cultural differences,” he wrote, “our case descriptions are remarkably similar to those of our Asian colleagues, and we appear to be dealing with the same issue.” In July, a counselor in Fall City, Washington, named Hilarie Cash opened reStart, the first Internet treatment center in the US. “China is in an enviable position because they’re taking action,” she says. “We’re not.”

    Deng Senshan’s family lives in a spacious four-bedroom apartment in the center of Ziyuan county, a provincial region with a population of about 70,000 not far from the Vietnam border, surrounded by rivers and lush hills of bamboo. He started playing online games when he was 11. At first, it was just something to do when he wasn’t swimming in one of the local watering holes or dreaming about becoming the next Yao Ming. He was a quiet kid with spiky black hair, metal-frame glasses, and a sparkling academic record that made his parents proud.

    That all ended at age 13, when he plunged into World of Warcraft and other multiplayer online games. Whenever he wasn’t in school, he played at the desktop computer in his room or at one of the dozen or so Web cafés throughout the city. Sometimes he skipped meals and didn’t sleep. He would even disappear without explanation. “I’d go out at night looking for him,” Deng Fei says. “It took hours to find him at one of the cafés.”

    Deng Senshan gained weight, and his grades slumped — changes that would worry any parent but especially one in China, where academic slippage could mean missing out on a spot at an elite high school. His parents tried to get him to refocus, moving his computer into their room, reducing his allowance, and buying him a treadmill. Nothing worked. “There were arguments,” Zhou Juan says.

    Deng Senshan’s parents wondered whether their son was addicted. Maybe it was just a stage, the way some kids become obsessed with girls or get caught up in a TV show. Maybe he was just stressed about school and using the Internet to blow off steam. Still, they didn’t want to take a chance.

    Then one night Deng Fei saw an advertisement on TV for the Qihang boot camp. It showed a family smiling together. The facility looked legitimate, even hope-inspiring. And it seemed safe; the ad aired on the local government television station, lending it an official imprimatur. The next day, Deng Fei mentioned the camp to his son, who didn’t like the idea at all. But Deng Fei wouldn’t let it rest. As school ended and summer began, he called the camp and secretly reserved a spot for his son. “They said, ‘Come, we can take care of him,’” Deng Fei says.

    A couple of weeks later, Deng Fei packed the car and took his family to the beach for one last weekend getaway. Sitting on the warm sand, he watched his son swim in the South China Sea. When Deng Senshan swam out to a woman flailing in the high waves and dragged her back to safety, the boy’s father filled with pride: his son the hero. Zhou Juan took a photo of Deng Senshan in his black bathing suit. It showed his hair still wet from the sea, a blue towel draped around his body, a stoic expression on his round face — unaware that he was about to be dispatched to the nearby camp. But that night, at the hotel, they broke the news. “It will help you,” Deng Fei assured him.

    One of the first signs that things had gotten out of hand in China’s Internet-addiction camps was the emergence of Uncle Yang — Yang Yongxin — a psychiatrist who opened a treatment center at a state-owned hospital in eastern Shandong Province in 2006. His camp was one of hundreds that had sprung up in China — many of them unregulated, uncredentialed, and relying on a grab bag of treatments: antidepressants, counseling, even intense physical exertion. (One sent its young clients on a 528-mile trek through Inner Mongolia.) What began as a fairly well-regarded and disciplined approach had spun into a growth industry, packed with untrained entrepreneurs.

    Yang’s battery of therapies included electroshock — known as xing nao, or “brain waking.” Electrodes were attached to his patients’ hands and temples, then shot through with 1 to 5 milliamps of electricity. One girl recalled wearing a mouth guard to prevent her from biting off her tongue. Some sessions apparently went on for a half hour; occasionally, a shock was said to leave burns. In an interview with a local paper, Yang defended the practice, saying, “It doesn’t cause any damage to the brain. But it is painful, quite painful!”

    Yang was not a psychotherapist, nor was he licensed to administer electroshock. But that didn’t matter. He claimed to know what he was doing. “It will clear the mind,” he promised. He charged almost $900 per month — a remarkable sum for a country in which the average monthly wage is around $400. Still, some 3,000 desperate parents sent their kids to him for four-month stints. The media hailed Yang as a “national Web-addiction expert,” recounting his heroic tales of life at his rehab center. Even after Yang’s methods were deemed excessive — in July, Chinese authorities banned electroshock as an Internet-addiction treatment, claiming the tactic required further study — his services were reportedly still in demand.

    Meanwhile, the rhetoric around Internet addiction grew even more hysterical: The Net was not just a public-health hazard but a national-security risk. In 2006, the Central Committee of the Communist Youth League openly fretted about a “severe social problem that could threaten the nation’s future” and called Internet cafés “hotbeds of juvenile crime and depravity.” Official figures claimed that the Internet was responsible for up to 80 percent of high school and college dropouts and most juvenile crimes. A show on state-run television described the fight against Internet addiction as the Third Opium War.

    It seemed as though almost anything could be blamed on the Internet. In September, the deputy director of China’s volleyball administration said the weak performance of the women’s national volleyball team was the result of “too much time online.”

    Even Tao Ran, the father of the boot camp, began worrying that people were overreacting. “I get calls from parents who think their kids are addicted to the Internet just because they’re in front of the computer,” he says. “There is a hypersensitivity to addiction now, and the climate is getting worse.” He isn’t alone in his concern. “I told the government, ‘You have to stop this,’” says Tao Hongkai, an education researcher at Huazhong Normal University. He believes in treating addicts, but through talk therapy, which can sometimes last hours. “Parents are spending a lot of money to send their kids to these camps,” he says. “I told the government, ‘It’s going to get out of control.’ But they didn’t do anything.”

    The Qihang Salvation Training Camp opened in May 2009, just in time for the summer holiday. Children who attended the camp portray it as a horrific experience. Although Qihang pitched itself as therapy, its treatment regimen revolved around intense martial drills, which began at sunrise with a harsh whistle and sometimes didn’t end until after midnight. Campers who couldn’t complete the required laps or push-ups were beaten. Screams could be heard constantly. A 12-year-old boy, whose parents enrolled him for playing his Game Boy too much, says that he spent most of his time concentrating on mere survival: “If anyone says they weren’t scared, they’re lying.”

    Deng Senshan’s fellow campers helped to re-create his first, and only, day at Qihang. Like all newcomers, the boy began his stay with a visit to a “confinement room” on the facility’s top floor and was told to face the wall. When he refused, counselors struck him. “I heard him screaming,” says a 13-year-old girl whose mother sent her after she started skipping school to chat online. “But I didn’t really pay attention, because it was normal to hear screams.”

    When the other campers were sent to bed, around 9 pm, Deng Senshan and three other new arrivals were instructed to run laps around the basketball courts under klieg lights. By now, Deng Senshan didn’t resist much; he ran about 30 laps before he stumbled and fell. A counselor dragged him to a nearby flagpole and hit him with a wooden chair leg, which broke. Deng Senshan begged for him to stop, pushed himself up, and continued running. He made it halfway around the court before collapsing again. “Do you want to run?” the counselor yelled, strutting over with a plastic stool, which he swung down on the boy.

    Deng Senshan crumpled to the concrete and stopped moving. There were at least a half-dozen witnesses. A security guard, who watched with shock from the tiny room where he lived at the edge of the school grounds, knew the child was in trouble: “I told my wife, ‘This boy will be lucky if he lives through the night.’”

    After the beating, Deng Senshan was carried trembling to his bunk, shouting, “They’re killing me,” and bleeding from his mouth, ears, eyes, and nose. The counselors left him there for hours before dispatching a car to take him to the hospital. At around 3 am, 14 hours after arriving at the camp, he was pronounced dead.

    It’s a September morning — the day that Deng Senshan would have started high school. His parents walk through crowded streets to their bright third-floor apartment. A month has passed since their son died. As they tell their story, Zhou Juan cries into her hands and Deng Fei fiddles with his keys.

    Recently, Deng Fei came to a conclusion: His son was never addicted. “He didn’t smoke, he didn’t drink. The Internet was probably his way to vent the pressure on him,” he says, staring at his feet. “We didn’t know that then. But we know that now. It wasn’t really an addiction. It was his way out of the pressure of being a student.” Zhou Juan raises her head. “He didn’t even play that much,” she says.

    More than a dozen people were jailed for Deng Senshan’s death, and it would later be reported that the camp founder — who had branded himself as an educational and psychological expert — had never even been to high school, let alone college. Deng Fei would also learn that the camp’s TV ad was a fraud — those smiling family members were actually paid actors.

    Deng Senshan’s death was the first of a small wave of terrifying reports. A few days after his murder, counselors at a camp in Hubei province beat to death a 14-year-old boy. Six days later, a teenager ended up in intensive care after sustaining injuries at another camp. The reports sparked cries for a government crackdown. “No one regulates the industry,” says Tao Ran, who has become one of the foremost proponents for increased oversight. In late 2008, Tao, hoping to eliminate uncertainty and confusion, began publicizing what he believed were the defining characteristics of a true Internet addict: playing online for at least six hours a day for three months straight and experiencing a profound sense of emotional, even physical, loss when unplugged from the Net. He also began lobbying the Chinese government to officially recognize the condition as a mental illness. But he is up against a juggernaut. There are thought to be between 300 and 400 camps in China.

    Meanwhile, the local government began facing criticism for its part in the disaster. The camp’s advertisements had aired on government-run television stations, and the facility, it turns out, was located on state-subsidized school property. Government officials responded by trying to quash the reports of what had happened to Deng Senshan. A journalist was fired after publishing a series of articles about the case for the local paper. According to a news account, he had “angered top officials” in exposing “the weakness in governance.” Later, another journalist who covered the story was reportedly sacked.

    But the usual strong-arm tactics couldn’t contain the public-relations disaster. The government eventually compensated Deng Fei and Zhou Juan for their son’s death — a seeming acknowledgement of the local government’s indirect role in the murder — even as officials rebuffed Deng Fei’s demand for an apology. And in November, China’s Ministry of Health drafted guidelines for boot camps, banning the use of physical punishment, “destructive surgeries,” and forced lockups. Tao Ran describes the policy as a hopeful “first step”; education researcher Tao Hongkai dismisses it as damage control. “I’m not sure how much it will do,” he says.

    It certainly won’t do anything for Deng Senshan. His old bedroom is almost empty now. Some white curtains decorated with the colorful words “always together” adorn the sole window. His treadmill rests folded up in a corner. A small table holding burning incense and a few pictures serves as a humble shrine. Most everything else that belonged to him has been burned — a regional tradition for sending off the dead.

    But in their own room, Deng Fei and Zhou Juan keep one more of their son’s possessions: his computer. It sits on a desk, turned off, the screen black. Before they’d taken him to the camp, Deng Senshan had saved a bunch of family photos on his hard drive. Wiping a tear from her eye, Zhou Juan talks about the computer not as a symbol of addiction or fear but as a storehouse of memories that will always be available, no matter what. Deng Senshan told her so, she says. “He said that the computer was safe.”
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