Inside China’s Brutal Internet Addiction Clinics
You wake from a long dream, and find yourself in an unfamiliar dormitory. The room is dimly lit, and contains nothing but four iron-framed beds, a desk, and a few stools. The only window is frosted over: You can’t see anything outside except for the barbed wire wrapped around the frame.
On the wall, a poster details a daily schedule. Inmates are to wake up at 5:30 a.m., and go to bed at 9:30 p.m. Apart from meals and personal hygiene, the entire day is consumed by three activities: rehab, military training, and psychological evaluation.
Then, you spot a diary lying on the desk. You pick it up, and begin flicking through the pages.
You read that your parents sent you here on Aug. 30. They told you that you needed to see a psychiatrist, and promised you’d be able to return home after a consultation. But in reality, you’ve been locked up here indefinitely. Only the psychiatrist can decide when you’ll be released.
These are the opening scenes of “Diagnosia,” an award-winning new virtual reality film by Zhang Mengtai and Lemon Guo that offers a terrifying glimpse inside a Chinese internet addiction clinic.
The filmmakers have made it their mission to expose the brutality of these facilities, where thousands of young Chinese have been incarcerated — often on dubious grounds — and subjected to forced medication, military training, and in some cases even electroshock therapy in the name of curing their “internet addiction.”
Zhang himself was thrown into one of these clinics at the age of 17, and the film is heavily based on his experience. Though he was only there for a month, the inhumane treatment he received still haunts him over a decade later.
“By making this film, I want to reconcile with my past trauma,” Zhang tells Sixth Tone. “I want to speak up for myself, as I wasn’t able to fight back at the time. And I want to question why we had to go through this.”
Internet addiction clinics first emerged in China two decades ago. In 2002, four minors burned down an internet café in Beijing after they were denied entry, killing 25 people. The incident shocked the nation, and sparked a moral panic about the dangers of the internet. Teens who spent hours playing online games — previously viewed as harmless slackers — were increasingly portrayed as potentially dangerous.
Amid this media furor, a self-proclaimed expert named Tao Hongkai captured public attention by claiming he’d developed a method for treating “internet addiction.” He opened the country’s first internet addiction rehab center later that year, and it proved to be hugely popular. Parents began checking children into rehab centers in their thousands. By 2009, there were more than 300 internet addiction clinics operating across China.
But the facilities quickly became notorious for their harsh treatment of young patients. In 2009, state broadcaster CCTV produced a bombshell report detailing one center’s use of electroshock therapy to treat internet addiction. (China’s Ministry of Health would later ban the practice.)
The facility Zhang was sent to — the Youth Psychological Growth Base, in suburban Beijing — didn’t employ electroshock therapy. But Zhang and the other patients were forced to take psychiatric medication twice a day. The nurses would shine flashlights into their mouths to check they hadn’t hidden the pills under their tongues, Zhang recalls.
“I still don’t know what the medicine was, but the rumors in the clinic were that it affected sexual functions,” he says. “I felt like I was being raped.”
During military training, the instructors would physically beat Zhang whenever he showed disobedience. On several occasions, he was locked inside a dark room by himself for days. The clinic called this “Morita therapy” — a reference to a form of psychotherapy developed in Japan during the early 20th century, which focuses on forcing patients to be alone with their thoughts.
The most frightening thing about the clinic wasn’t even the violence, Zhang says. It was the lack of control — the knowledge that he was totally subject to the whims of the staff. “I didn’t know when I’d be able to come out, what would happen in the future, or why this illegal imprisonment was happening,” says Zhang. “And no one was stopping it.”
Zhang was released from the center in late 2007, and soon after China appeared to turn against internet addiction clinics. In 2009, CCTV published its exposé, then months later news emerged that a 16-year-old boy had been beaten to death by staff at an internet addiction clinic. The story triggered outrage, and alarmist media stories about internet addiction became less common, Zhang says.
“From 2009, it wasn’t just that I wanted to forget about the whole thing; the number of media reports related to internet addiction plummeted,” recalls Zhang. “I felt like everyone wanted to forget about this stain as soon as possible.”
Zhang managed to move on with his life, gaining degrees in fine arts and sound art from Goldsmiths, University of London, and Columbia University in New York, respectively. For 10 years, he barely thought about his experience in the clinic, until one day he saw a news story about the World Health Organization recognizing “gaming disorder” as a medical condition.
Zhang decided to check if the rehab center where he’d been confined was still there. To his surprise, the clinic was still operating, just under a different name and address.
In reality, China’s internet addiction clinics never disappeared. On business information platform Tianyancha, more than 50 companies are listed as providing treatment for internet addiction. Meanwhile, after several years of hiatus, Chinese media have begun labeling video games a form of “spiritual opium” and “electronic heroin” once more.
Most troublingly, research conducted inside these Chinese clinics has gained international recognition. The director of the facility where Zhang was interned, Tao Ran, published a paper based on the clinic’s treatment of its own patients, in which he proposed a set of diagnostic criteria for gaming disorder. This work generated significant interest among academics, and even influenced thinking on gaming disorder in the United States.
Tao’s paper has been cited in over 100 academic papers, according to the National Library of Medicine. In 2013, the diagnostic criteria Tao proposed were mentioned for future consideration in the 5th edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).
“In the eyes of the Western world, Tao’s research seems to have a solid foundation, but Tao obviously didn’t conduct research in a scientific way,” Zhang says. “I want to use my real experience to question the authority of his research.”
For Zhang, the research conducted by Tao — who isn’t related to Tao Hongkai — is problematic for three main reasons. First, it’s unethical.
“They didn’t tell us that we would be used in experiments,” says Zhang. “Many people in the clinic had been tricked into going there; parents even used sleeping pills to bring them in.”
Second, the patients at the clinic often didn’t fit the diagnostic criteria Tao later proposed. According to Tao’s paper, a teenager can be diagnosed with a gaming disorder if they have been playing games for more than six hours a day for over three months. Zhang didn’t fit this standard, yet the clinic immediately turned him into a patient and refused to release him until he’d been “cured.”
Zhang believes his freedom was taken away simply because it was in both the clinic and his parents’ interests. The clinics are for-profit businesses: Tao’s center charged patients over 10,000 yuan (then $1,300) per month in 2007. And, in Zhang’s view, sending him away allowed his parents to avoid confronting the real issue in the family: the impact of their marital disputes on his mental health.
Several other patients had been sent to the clinic for dubious reasons, according to Zhang. One teenage couple ended up there after their parents discovered they were dating. Similarly, a 30-year-old man checked in after his wife found out he’d been having an affair with a woman he’d met online.
And third, the clinic appeared to have no idea whether its treatment had been effective or not, Zhang says. “Just as many people went there, but not because they had gaming problems, they got out, but not because they were ‘cured,’” he tells Sixth Tone. “We were all just performing. Tao’s so-called scientific experiment was like a study done with a group of actors.”
Inside the clinic, Zhang quickly realized that his best chance of regaining his freedom lay in pretending to cooperate with the psychiatrists. One line in “Diagnosia” sums up this attitude: “The harder you fight back against a tyrant, the harder they’re going to crush you.”
Much of the film’s plot draws on the tactics Zhang used to dupe the clinic’s staff, especially the covert alliances he formed with other patients.
One day, Zhang found himself alone in his dorm room with another college student, who had arrived at the center a few days after him. When they began chatting, the student confessed that the psychiatrists had asked him to watch Zhang and report any “rebellious thoughts.” He asked if Zhang had been told to do the same thing to him. After that, the pair made a pact, agreeing to cover for each other.
“It’s not easy to hide your real feelings when everyone is watching you closely,” Zhang says. “There was a complex network of interpersonal relationships to deal with in this clinic, and that was also key to escaping.”
Other scenes in “Diagnosia” dramatize the rigid discipline inside the clinic. At one point, a group of teenagers dressed identically in camouflage T-shirts and pants march in formation to “March of the Athletes” — a Chinese military anthem. The sound of the footsteps and the music become ever more elongated, till it descends into a continuous howl.
“Military training turned out to be the part I was most comfortable with,” says Zhang, noting that college students undergo compulsory military training in China. “They believe that young people’s bodies and minds are unstable, and that every military drill deepens their obedience.”
Tao Ran did not respond to Sixth Tone’s request for comment.
“Diagnosia” is already making waves on the festival circuit. The film received nominations for awards at several international festivals, including the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) and the Sundance Film Festival. It also won Best Chinese Work at the Sandbox Immersive Festival. A commercial release for the film has yet to be confirmed.
Zhang hopes the work can help combat the myth that internet addiction clinics are necessary to combat the scourge of gaming disorder. In his view, Chinese authorities should spend less time worrying about “spiritual opium,” and more time thinking about why video games are so popular in the first place.
“Playing games online is actually the only way for young people to socialize,” Zhang says. “There’s no public space where young people can play in my hometown. My classmates lived in different parts of the city, and we all had various extracurricular classes after school … Games filled the gaps.”
Editor: Dominic Morgan.
(Header image: A still from the film “Diagnosia.” Courtesy of Zhang Mengtai)