It was around midnight when the taxi pulled up outside the prison-like compound and Xiong Chengzuo’s parents delivered him to the man they call the “evil godfather”.
Earlier that day, the trio had set off from their home, more than 600km (370 miles) away, on what Xiong’s parents claimed was a family outing. In fact, their destination was a boot camp-style treatment centre for troubled teenagers and internet addicts whose online obsession has their parents worried.
“They tricked me,” Xiong says of his internment on 18 December last year. “I shouted and I yelled: ‘I want to get out! I don’t want to stay here!’” It was no use: “My parents ignored me – they left the next morning.”
Xiong, 16, is one of an estimated 23 million Chinese internet addicts. And the “evil godfather” – in fact an affable former People’s Liberation Army soldier called Xu Xiangyang – is one of those on the frontline of a global battle to rescue young people from what some perceive as a virtual hell.
“I’m totally against online games,” says Xu, the 57-year-old head of the Xu Xiangyang education and training centre in Huai’an, a city about 400km north of Shanghai. “They completely ruin a person’s health. They leave an individual with no means of earning money or supporting themselves. They are utterly meaningless and bring nothing positive to a family or a person.”
When Xu opened his school in 1997, internet addicts were few and far between. China had only been fully connected to the internet for three years and had just 300,000 computers and 620,000 people able to surf the web, according to official figures.
Fast forward two decades and that number has exploded to about 710 million users, giving China the world’s largest online community. The number of addicts has exploded, too.
“It’s such a big issue,” says Xu’s business partner and wife, Li Yan, 59, who believes the solitude endured by millions of digital natives is the key culprit. “They feel emptiness in their hearts. They can’t live up to their parents’ expectations. So they go to the internet cafe.”
Once in such cafes, many young people struggle to escape, spending entire days or nights glued to games such as League of Legends or Counter-Strike. In April, a 17-year-old from Guangzhou was reported to have suffered a strokeafter playing a game called King of Glory for 40 hours non-stop. In a 2014 documentary about China’s so-called web junkies, the head of one Beijing boot camp claimed some addicts wore nappies to avoid having to abandon their screens: “That’s why we call it electronic heroin.”
‘It is about discipline’
In 2008, China became the first country to declare internet addiction a clinical disorder. It has since been trying to tackle this 21st-century problem with sometimes highly controversial techniques.
There has been a boom in boot camps: one, not far from Xu’s school, gained notoriety for using electroconvulsive therapy to treat internet addicts, in defiance of a government ban. “It was unbearable,” one 22-year-old patient told the Chinese news website Sixth Tone of his ordeal. “I had to close my eyes tightly and all I saw was snow, like looking at a television without a signal.”
Xu rejects such methods as irrational and inhumane. His centre, which costs 36,000 yuan a year (£4,200), tries to lure internet addicts back into the real world with culture, not electric shocks; ballet, music and stand-up comedy are all on its curriculum.
However, true to his People’s Liberation Army roots, Xu believes one remedy beats all others: marching. At least three times a year, pupils – many of them from well-off backgrounds – set off on a 300km trek through the countryside. Exhausted, but at least isolated from the internet, they pause halfway at a barracks-style compound in the village of Bafang for a month of classes, before returning to base. “It is about discipline,” Xu says.
Three days after completing stage one of the school’s latest march, and with temperatures reaching nearly 40C, Xiong admits he is feeling the burn. “I couldn’t bear it at first … Every day I’d have to walk 40km.
“[My feet are] covered in blisters,” he complains, pointing to a pair of fluorescent pink trainers.
But the teenager says the journey forced him offline and allowed him to reflect on his online ways. “They had no choice but to send me here,” he says of his parent’s decision.
‘They have wifi – but no password’
Bing Jiaying, an 18-year-old school dropout and self-declared smartphone addict, is less sure. Bing says she was also tricked into visiting the school under the pretext of a family excursion. “I hate you,” she remembers telling her mother in May, as she was forcibly checked in.
She admits her iPhone 6 Plus – on which she spent days and nights chatting on instant messaging services such as WeChat and QQ – was partly responsible for wrecking relations with her parents. But after two months bunking in a dorm marked “female soldiers”, Bing appears to be dreading the rest of her stay. “I’ll be here for a whole year,” she grumbles.
Fears over the abuse of minors in some boot camps, where interns are sometimes locked up in prison-like cells and suffer corporal punishment and beatings, have spurred government action. The dire conditions in some institutions were exposed last year when a teenager reportedly starved her mother to death as retribution for having sent her to one.
The atmosphere in Xu’s camp appears far less draconian, even if access to the internet is strictly limited. “We have wifi here – but they don’t have the password!” Li says during a tour of one dormitory, which is filled with wooden bunkbeds and the scent of unwashed feet.
During a visit to the Bafang compound, dozens of cheerful students can be seen splashing about in an outdoor swimming pool and bellowing classic Chinese poetry during an ear-splitting enunciation class. Zhang Yifan, the art teacher giving that lesson, says the school’s job is to nurture those in its care, not punish them: “Some parents use only severe methods, like beating or scolding, towards their children. They have no idea how to guide their kids into a beautiful world.”
Xiong confesses he was a “severe addict” when he arrived at Xu’s retreat, but is now even beginning to enjoy his new home. “It’s a good place,” he says.
By Tom Phillips
Additional reporting by Wang Zhen