An hour after I check in as a patient at the China Young Mental Development Base, the country's toughest internet addiction rehab boot camp, a no-nonsense nurse had rigs me up for an electroencephalography (EEG) brain test. A rubber hat covered with cold electrodes is pulled over my scalp.
"The result will show how excited or depressed your brain is," the nurse says. "We can see if your brain is short of blood or oxygen or is fatigued. Most people here have light depression, only a few have it seriously. Now close your eyes and don't talk."
Shortly before this, after being relieved of my personal items by a drillmaster wearing an army-style shirt, I was told to complete a computerised psychological assessment to help determine if I am depressed. Question subjects vary from my sexual ability to my appetite to whether I feel like I want to end my life. It's like every 4 AM drunk conversation I've ever had, compounded into a 10 AM quiz in a stark administrative room in South Beijing.
My mouse-clicking sound was masked by the clatter-noise of young patients bustling in and out of nearby dorm rooms. Most of them had deferred a year from school to be assigned to the centre's prison-esque compound for six months. The goal is to cure them of internet addiction, which is officially recognised as a mental illness in China. (Internet Addiction Disorder, or IAD, is yet to make it into the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which is the West's standard psychiatric diagnostic manual and was last updated in 2013.) According to government estimates, up to 24 million young people in China have IAD.
The average patient age is 17, which makes the boisterous atmosphere here akin to that of a school rather than a prison camp. The exit staircase is blocked by an enormous padlocked metal door, however, and serves as an indicator of the controversy that surrounds the base, one of hundreds of rehabilitation camps believed to be operating in China. This controversy is somewhat compounded by the fact that the base is also used to "cure" homosexual patients of their sexuality.
"Why am I depressed? I don't know. I've been here one year in total."
Professor Tao Ran, a former People's Liberation Army colonel who runs the base, had promised to make my experience as a patient there as realistic as possible. The nurse is certainly obliging, handing me a printout of my brain test results following the EEG. Certain physiological brain characteristics are associated with depression, and the plan is to use the data alongside my psych test results later to judge my mental health.
I'm escorted to the school canteen-esque lunch room to fill up a metal tray with a mountain of rice and oily vegetables. I sit next to three shy, giggly teenage patients.
"This is the third time he has been here," a patient sitting next to me says, pointing to his mate opposite. Tao claims an 85-90 percent cure success rate for the base, but the statistic hasn't been verified. "I suffer from serious depression," the patient's friend said when I ask why he's come back so many times. "Why am I depressed? I don't know. I've been here one year in total."
The base hosts around 55 patients at the time of my visit. It was established in 2003—five years later, in 2008, China became the first country to list IAD as a mental illness. Recognised symptoms include using the internet for more than six hours a day and becoming anxious when offline or during power outages.
Patients, the vast majority of whom are male, wear army garb and perform military-style exercises and tasks from the 6:30 AM wake-up whistle to lights out at 9:30 PM. Drillmasters keep them in line while lecturers, doctors, psychiatrists and nurses deliver anti-internet classes, counseling sessions and drugs. Tao said most patients suffer from clinical depression, but refused to divulge which drugs he administers.
A 2014 documentary filmed in the base depicted a miserable, prisoner-like existence for the patients. What it didn't reveal was the base's sideline in attempting to "correct" gay patients' sexualities. Tao told me that if patients say that they are unsure of their sexuality they are given pro-heterosexuality lessons and are encouraged to think about what he identified as positive aspects of being straight, such as having children.
When I challenged Tao on this view, along with his claim that there is a difference between being "biologically" and "mentally" gay, he said being gay simply goes against traditional Chinese culture.
The government is making big leaps forward in terms of promoting equality for homosexuals in China. It is working ever closer with the gay community and industry leaders to promote sexual health issues and has recently instigated public meetings with government officials for public shows of acceptance. But homophobic views are often still embedded deep in families across China.
Tao did not try to obscure his views. He did not seem to understand why I would want to challenge them, to say nothing of the psychological damage caused by forcing heterosexuality onto a confused, questioning, or vulnerable gay individual. Tao insisted that he does not attempt to "cure" patients who are certain that they are gay.
He was keen to move the conversation on after he sensed my concern about this treatment. He said that he hoped that letting me experience a glimpse of life at the base would show a different side to what was depicted in the documentary.
Equipment like the EEG scanner don't come cheap, so neither does treatment here: it costs 9,300 Yuan (£960) a month plus food and drugs bills per patient. Many parents driven to despair by their children's online obsessions say it's their last hope. Before I entered the base Tao told me that most patients had fractured relationships with their parents due to emotional neglect or busy work schedules. They turned to the internet for social interaction.
Many were obsessed with video games, playing for days at a time before being consigned to the base. "The two most popular games among patients are League of Legends and World of Warcraft," said Tao, who comes across as a gentle, friendly figure despite the reputation his job and views might suggest. "Some kids are so addicted to them that they wear diapers to avoid having to stop playing to go to the toilet. Their parents wonder why their teenager is buying diapers."
The youngest patient Tao said he has treated was nine years old. "When he was a baby he would only stop crying when he had an iPad in front of him," he said. "The iPad was basically his nanny, he had it from morning to night. Then when he went to school aged six he couldn't focus on work and had ADHD."
After lunch we are all marched—literally—back to the dorm area and lined up against the corridor wall. A register is barked out at 2 PM, and a midday rest period begins.
Seemingly worried that my lunch chat didn't result in a pro-base conversation, a drillmaster takes me to a cell-like room away from four-bunk dorms. I am told this is because I am accompanied by a female photographer, and during rest time the male patients will be walking around in their underwear.
"If you stay here for a long time you find it's a brainwash."
At 2 PM, when everyone is fully clothed again, I am allowed back in the dorm area. An 18 year-old patient from Hebei province proudly shows me how to fold up a duvet with military precision. He told me that he became addicted to video games because his parents spent so much time away from home. He turned to gaming for solace.
"My grades got worse and worse and I ended up skipping classes then not going to school at all," he says. "I lost all my social functions and ended up trying to commit suicide." Before he was assigned to the base, he adds, he entertained suicide either by lying on train tracks or jumping from a tall building.
He talks about how he is "satisfied" with the base and how the staff are "very responsible." He also tells me about how one drillmaster tied his hands and feet up to suppress him when he had a tantrum on his first day of arrival. Later, I saw a staff member punching a misbehaving patient in the chest.
Another patient, aged 16, from Hunan province, tells me that he used to spend up to a day at a time in an internet café playing Counter-Strike, and that the base has "corrected some bad habits, my understanding of the internet as well as my mentality. I have become more reasonable and mature," the patient explains. After talking to me, he spent a half hour intently playing with two Rubik's Cube-style toys.
After yet another corridor line-up register we are again marched to the yard for free sports time. It's basically a recess period, and I bond with some of the patients by demonstrating my one killer basketball skill, which is being about a foot taller than everyone else in the yard. Parents mill around the outskirts of the sports areas—they are encouraged to stay on-site and be available for counseling sessions with their children.
The open space also allows brief conversations away from the twitchy ear of the drillmaster.
"If you stay here for a long time you find it's a brainwash," says one of the patients, who I had spoken to earlier under supervision. He asks me if I knew why I was asked to drop by the base on a Wednesday, when the schedule, according to the patient, is less strict than other days.
"Why?" I ask.
"That's because on Wednesdays fewer people rebel," he says.
Another patient, thin and timid, suggests that there may be more—or less—to the supposed high "cure" rate that Tao claims.
"My first time here was for internet addiction," the patient says. His voice is barely audible, and his hands are shaking. "The second time was for problems with love affairs. I was brought up in my neighbour's home so I had a strong desire for their love. The desire is transferred onto women older than me. I have a crush on a psychiatrist here."
We are marched back to the dorms where, sat on a bunk, I continue my chat with the timid patient. He is soon hauled out of the room by the drill sergeant, who walked by the patient's bunk and noticed him talking to me. The mood immediately intensifies, and I'm scolded for this "unauthorised" conversation. Then the drillmaster threatens to confiscate my photographer's gear. We had planned to stay at the base overnight, but decide now would might be a good time to leave, and tell the drillmaster that we'll be on our way.
With that, my belongings are taken away and I am detained behind the padlocked metal panel blocking the exit stairs. My request to have my stuff returned is refused. An hour or so of fraught, farcical negotiation ensues before my possessions are given back. The exit door padlock is removed and I depart, still wearing my camo t-shirt.
Even if I had stayed for the intended two days, my experience would obviously not have given me more than a blinker-bound glimpse of life as a patient at the China Young Mental Development Base. I was shielded from the lectures and reportedly more hardcore exercises sessions that take place on other days of the week. But it was still an intriguing partial insight into one of China's most controversial facilities.
And even if the 85-90 percent success rate claim is bluster, being forcibly deprived of the thing you're addicted to for six months, with the threat of re-assignment on relapse, is one method that could kick most vices into touch. Especially a vice that has no chemical component, despite Tao's description of the internet as "electric heroin."
It is not known how many patients get assigned to the base multiple times, but that a significant amount of them clearly have been repeatedly accepted is concerning. How many six-month sessions can they spend out of the school system, inside the high walls of the compound before it's decided that perhaps the base isn't working for them? Is this happening because all other treatment options really have been exhausted? When familial relationships disintegrate to the very depths, could some absent parents be using the base as a convenient "out of sight, out of mind" deposit point for their teenagers?
Frustratingly, my day as a patient at the China Young Mental Development Base threw up more questions than answers.
I did get a souvenir brain test printout. Thankfully, the nurse who wired up my EEG had told me that the printouts didn't suggest any negative mental conditions, despite showing a slight lack of oxygen in one quarter of my brain. Who knows what the psych test results revealed—I won't be going back to pick them up.
With additional reporting by Cissy Young.