It was mid-afternoon when the drill sergeant’s patience with the teenage boys finally snapped, and he landed the punch.
He clenched his fist and made a hard, thudding strike to the chest of a gangly boy who had been giggling at Beijing’s China Young Mental Development Base, one of China’s notorious “internet addiction rehab centers.”
Around 80 patients, the majority of which were male with an average age of about 16 to 17, were consigned to the prison-like center by their parents in an attempt to cure them of their digital obsessions.
These centers have caused uproar for their alleged violence and for locking up patients, who are often removed from school against their will and sometimes drugged to get them in the facilities.
My visit was in 2015, and what I saw painted a similarly bleak picture of life in these controversial places.
Before I saw the punch, which was punishment for fooling around during one of the military-style exercises patients are forced to do, I heard how the same drill sergeant tied up misbehaving patients.
And shortly before that Tao Ran, the center’s boss and a concrete-tough former People’s Liberation Army colonel, told me that the venue had been operating since 2003.
Five years after it opened, in 2008, China became the first country to recognize internet addiction disorder (IAD) as a mental illness.
The Chinese government estimates that around 24 million people in the country suffer from IAD, many of them teenagers addicted to playing online games such as “League of Legends” and “Defense of the Ancients.”
And an estimated 300 Chinese internet addiction centers have sprung up to treat them.
Earlier this month, two years after my visit to the Beijing center, one of them made headlines that shocked the country.
Eighteen-year-old Li Ao died after spending less than two days in the Hefei Zhengneng…