Monday, March 12, 2007

The First Step is Admitting the Problem

I suppose there is a certain irony that it was through Yahoo! News that I first found the Reuters report on China's effort to deal with Internet addiction. What is most interesting, however, is the extent to which this problem has become institutionalized in the form of an Internet Treatment Addiction Center, described as follows:

The Internet Addiction Treatment Center (IATC) in Daxing county uses a blend of therapy and military drills to treat the children of China's nouveau riche addicted to online games, Internet pornography, cybersex and chats.

There are sure to be questions about how this facility operates, just as there have been questions concerning approaches to just about any other form of addiction:

The government-funded Daxing center, run by an army colonel under the Beijing Military Hospital, is one of a handful of clinics treating patients with Internet addictions in China.

Patients, overwhelmingly male and aged 14 to 19, wake up in common dormitories at 6.15 a.m. to do morning calisthenics and march on the cracked concrete grounds wearing khaki fatigues.

Drill sergeants bark orders at them when they are not attending group and one-on-one counseling sessions. Therapy includes patients simulating war games with laser guns.

The IATC's tough love approach to breaking Internet addiction is unique to China, but necessary in a country with over two million teenage Internet addicts, according to facility staff.

"Many of the Internet addicts here have rarely considered other peoples' feelings. The military training allows them to feel what it's like to be a part of a team," said Xu Leiting, a psychologist at the hospital. "It also helps their bodies recover and makes them stronger."

The IATC has treated 1,500 patients in this way since opening in 2004, and boasts a 70 percent success rate at breaking addictions.

The fees cost about 10,000 yuan ($1,290) a month, nearly a year's average disposable income in China. But the center takes on pro bono cases for poor families, said Tao Ran, its director.

The article goes on to comment that there is still debate in the Western world over whether or not "Internet addiction" is a legitimate concept. One is reminded of J. Edgar Hoover's doubts over whether or not the Mafia existed, the efforts to ignore or deny medical evidence in the fifties concerning the correlation between cancer and cigarettes, or, for that matter (having just watched An Inconvenient Truth on Showtime), the reaction to scientific evidence of global warming. At least two of these analogies are not that far-fetched. There is nothing in the Constitution (or any other part of the legal record) that refers to "freedom of lifestyle;" but, when we look at general public behavior in open societies (not just the United States), there seems to be a general consensus that this is an "inalienable right," possibly covered in our own documents by "the pursuit of happiness." The Chinese government, on the other hand, was built on an ideology that places the well-being of the society ahead of the well-being of the individual; and every economic analysis we read about the growth of a market economy in China reminds us that this ideology is still officially in place. Indeed, when you think of it, confronting Internet addiction as a question of the public good is no different from challenging the presence of Starbucks in the imperial palace as an insult to Chinese culture.

When I unabashedly appropriated the title of Marco Bellocchio's film (China is Near) for one of my posts last month, it was not my intention to suggest that China was coming closer to the West in "attitude space." Rather, it was that China was catching up with the West by doing things their way, rather than conforming to Western normative practices. Whether or not the consequences of ignoring such norms when Internet addiction is at stake are positive remains to be seen (along with the consequences of this first skirmish of a "culture war" against Starbucks). However, history teaches us that normative practices are, in their own way, also addictive; so it may very well be the case that, as global economic trends work their course, we may be the ones who will need to think seriously about going into rehab!

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