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China's clinic for its internet junkies

London Telegraph | March 13, 2007
Richard Spencer

China has a new poster-boy for its radical efforts to curb what it says is a growing social scourge - internet addiction.

"Surfing is bad for you," says Yang Yang, a lanky 17-year-old, dolefully, as he describes for the cameras how his obsession with computer games destroyed his relationship with his father, undermined his performance in school examinations, and led to declining social standards among his peers.

"This is our social crisis. I really want to go back to how my family used to be, pure and simple, but there's no going back. Who's going to solve this crisis?"

Yang is about to embark on his second round of treatment for internet addiction at a military-style boot camp, one of several methods the Chinese government is using to tackle what it claims to be a massively growing problem.

His case has been taken up by politicians at the current, annual two-week gathering of the country's parliament, the National People's Congress, who this weekend took his case to China Central Television, the mouthpiece of the ruling Communist Party.

"Youth internet addiction has become a very serious social problem," said Li Chong'an, the deputy chairman of the NPC legal committee, who is calling for tighter enforcement of the rules banning under-18s from internet cafes and for a rating system for games.

"Yang Yang, as an adolescent, seems able to go to any internet cafe with no questions asked - the owners are breaking the law."

Last week, the government announced that in addition to previous crackdowns on unregistered internet bars and the under-18 ban, no new cybercafes would be allowed to open for the rest of the year.

It blames a wide range of juvenile delinquency, from theft to rape and robbery, on online gaming, pornography, and cyber "sex-chatting". In one case, a game player killed another in an argument over a game, while cases are recorded of unemployed young men playing until they drop dead from exhaustion.

But rules are only one solution to the problem. The government is also resting its hopes on clinics and aggressive boot camps such as the one in the Beijing suburb which Yang Yang attends.

It is run by army medical officers from the Beijing Military Hospital, who take teenagers through a rigorous programme of exercise, khaki-clad drills and therapy, beginning with a sergeant-major's 6.15am wake-up call.

"So far we have cured about 70 per cent of the young addicts we have treated," Tao Ran, the centre's director said last night. "We give them military drills to build their confidence and good habits."

China has more than 130 million regular internet-users, according to government surveys, a figure that puts it behind only the United States. Mr Tao estimates levels of addiction as up to 10 million.

"Internet addicts in China are as many as 10 years younger than those in the West," said a report by the Chinese Academy of Sciences. "They are more susceptible."

Mr Tao's regime is a classic mixture of carrot and stick. The military style reflects the commitment to discipline which underlies the Confucian approach to education from ancient times, and has been reinforced under Communism by regular school yard mass exercises.

At the same time, there is a nod to the western-style therapy. "We combine medical and psychological treatment together with the education of children and their families," Mr Tao said. "We reckon 20 to 30 per cent of these young people have depression or a compulsive order.

"In my experience 90 per cent of their family show inadequate personal care for their children. They give them too much in the way of material possessions, but not enough respect and understanding."

Although state-run, the centre charges hefty fees, around 10,000 yuan (£650) a month to the ambitious middle-class parents who send their children there. Among its more controversial methods are the use of drug therapy and acupuncture and mild electric shocks to "stimulate" positive nerve impulses.

In one more imaginative move, boys, who make up the majority of those attending, play a "live" version of Counter-strike, one of the many games to which teenagers are addicted, as a way of helping them "distinguish between real and virtual worlds".

Internet addiction is a growing problem not only in China but across Asia. Blame is widely attributed to parents' obsessive pushing of their children to ever greater academic success.

But in other countries more western cures such as family therapy are given greater prominence.

The Chinese approach, coupled with the element of propaganda surrounding the cases of young people like Yang Yang, lead critics to believe it has a broader aim of instilling ambiguity about the internet and the freedom it brings.

"I do believe they want to fight this internet addiction," said Julien Pain, of Reporters Sans Frontières. "But with the Chinese government always behind this justification there is also the will to control political speech.

"If you have thousands of small illegal cybercafes it is very hard to know who posted what, who downloaded what on the internet."



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