BEIJING? — Like many mothers, Li Shubing despaired over her inability to control her teenage son. The 14-year-old often stayed out all night playing games in an Internet cafe. He neglected his studies.
So when she learned of summer camp in rural Sichuan province that was promising to cure Internet addiction, she enrolled her son for a one-month course at $715. No matter that the camp boasted extreme methods — "suffering can help a person improve," read one of the advertisements — Li thought a little discipline would be just the ticket to whip her son into shape.
The youth, Pu Liang, now lies hospitalized in critical condition with broken ribs, kidney damage and internal bleeding. Removed from the camp by police last week, he told his parents he had been beaten up by a counselor and fellow campers after he was unable to complete a regimen of push-ups.
"I never imagined they could be so cruel to treat a child like this," said Li, who runs a carpentry shop in Chengdu. "I only wanted him to straighten out his life."
Less than three weeks earlier, another teenager was beaten to death at a similar boot camp for Internet addiction in Nanning. The boy, 15-year-old Deng Senshan, had been at the camp less than 48 hours when he died. Thirteen people have been arrested and the camp closed.
The incidents shed light on the strange phenomenon of using extreme methods to wean children off the Internet. By the estimate of the China Internet Youth Association, 300 camps are devoted to Internet addiction.
Methods for addressing the so-called addiction include electric shock therapy and antidepressants, while some camp administrators more benignly send their campers to climb mountains and immerse themselves in nature. Some camps employ former members of the People's Liberation Army, outfitting their campers in fatigues and drilling them in military marching formations.
To a large extent, the camps follow the logic of Mao Tse-tung's movement in the late 1960s and 1970s to send urban youth down to the countryside; only this time, the parents themselves are sending their children.
"Mao was correct in his ideas. If a kid is from the city, he has to go to the countryside," said Wu Yongjin, who runs the Chinese Unconventional Education Training Center, the camp in Deyang City where Pu Liang was injured. "It is even more important nowadays when children are so spoiled."
Wu defends the use of extreme methods for treating extreme cases. He cites one boy who held a knife to his mother's throat to get money to use the Internet and another teenager who was so pampered that he couldn't wash his hair alone. He says he teaches them skills that elude many teenagers, such as doing their own laundry and cooking.
"It's OK to beat them, just as long as you make sure they don't really get hurt," said Wu, who blames Pu's critical injuries on a counselor inexperienced in administering corporal punishment.
The counselor was detained by police, who are investigating.
Recent incidents at the camps prompted a round of soul-searching in China. The Chinese Ministry of Health last month ordered a hospital in Shandong province to stop electric shock treatments, which it had reported performing on 3,000 youths.
One high school student complained of being forced to stand from 2 p.m. to 5 a.m. and not being allowed to sleep or eat.
"It's not a place for human beings," the student, Xiao Zhang, told the China Internet Network Information Center, a government-run Web site, about the camp he attended.
Chinese journalists who visited another camp in the southern city of Guangzhou found teenagers locked behind bars, begging for help. The Southern Metropolis Daily ran photographs of teenagers hanging a bedsheet out of a barred, upper-story window reading "SOS."
Other teens attached messages to shoes, water bottles and paper airplanes that they threw out their locked dormitory windows toward the journalists, according to the newspaper.
The camps advertise heavily but often are not what they claim.
Kong Lingzhong, who in 2004 started one of the first Internet addiction camps on the outskirts of Beijing, ridiculed the coercive methods used by his competitors.
"You can't cure somebody of an addiction unless they want to do it themselves," Kong said. "I believe it is a matter of education — helping the child realize the difference between reality and the virtual world, showing them nature and how much more appealing reality can be."
Tao Hongkai, a sociologist who has written widely on the subject, said that several factors result in Chinese youth abusing the Internet. Most schoolwork is boring, emphasizing memorization rather than thinking, Tao said.
Unlike many American teenagers, who often use computers at home, Chinese teenagers are more likely to head to what are called "wang ba" Internet cafes, which are open 24 hours a day.
"A hundred years ago we had opium dens," Tao said. "Now we have these (cafes), which are the equivalent of spiritual opium."