By on July 28, 2014
When Arthur Kleinman, the Harvard anthropologist and psychiatrist, studied Chinese patients in the nineteen-sixties, he found that people who had been raised to suppress and endure had trouble acknowledging individual distress. He told me, “It was unthinkable that they would use psychological terminology to refer to themselves, no matter how well you got to know them.” A half-century later, however, as China reckons with profound economic and social change, it has embraced the vocabulary of psychology with the passion of the convert.
Chinese newspapers devote special attention to the affliction known as wangyin, or Internet addiction. Last year, America’s Diagnostic Statistical Manual included “Internet Gaming Disorder” in an appendix, but called for more research “before it might be considered for inclusion in the main book as a formal disorder.” China has already classified Internet addiction as a clinical disorder, which it considers a leading threat to the health of its young people. One reason is political: wary of the organizing potential of the Internet, the government was early to adopt a medical imprimatur that could be invoked for efforts to control usage of the Web. In 2005, the Beijing judge Shan Xiuyun estimated that ninety per cent of the city’s juvenile crime was Internet-related—a remarkable notion at a time when less than ten per cent of the nation’s population was online.
In China today, Internet addiction has acquired a symbolic function that is about more than health. It is a measure of national anxiety as much as the rise of “neurasthenia” (“tired nerves”) was a sign of America’s unease during the industrial revolution. At one point in the documentary “Web Junkie,” a young Chinese patient diagnosed with Internet addiction says, “If you check their definition of ‘Internet addiction,’ eighty per cent of Chinese people must have it.”
Opening August 6th at Film Forum, “Web Junkie,” by the Israeli filmmakers Shosh Shlam and Hilla Medalia, takes us inside an Internet-addiction treatment center in Beijing, one of hundreds across China, to chronicle the ways in which technology, wealth, and autonomy are altering the ties between young people and the elders who strain to comprehend those changes. The film’s best moments have the patience of ethnography, lingering in the background of communities that are usually out of view. Alongside Shlam and Medalia, the credits for “Web Junkie” contain a list of Chinese “fixers” and other crew members, and anyone who has worked in China will know how important that was to building trust with the participants.
The Chinese Teen-Agers Mental Growth Center is a boxy mid-rise on the outskirts of Beijing, where the patients are high-school- and college-aged young men, dressed in camouflage uniforms. They march around campus in formation, looking more bored or sullen than scared straight. In interviews with the film crew, the young men tell similar tales: they dropped out of school to play video games for eight or ten hours a day. Their desperate parents eventually forced, drugged, or duped them into getting admitted to the treatment center for three or four months. The camera shows us barred windows, padlocks, paper cups containing mysterious medication, and “drillmasters,” who bark orders at their charges. But those images no longer shock the way they did before troubled-teen boot camps in the American West became a staple of news-magazine television. More compelling, especially to those with an interest in China, is a subtext about the disorienting effect of sudden prosperity. When a young patient explains how his parents tricked him into coming to the center, he says, “They told me we were going skiing in Russia.” Another admits that he spent eighty-five hundred dollars on video games, more than an average Chinese worker earns in a year.
Some of the patients could be in any country. A cocky sixteen-year-old named Xi Wang (it means “hope”) rolls his eyes at his father for packing him off to boot camp instead of simply persuading him to lay off the Internet. “I would’ve talked to him,” Xi says. (At one point, Xi leads a jailbreak with six other patients, described in an irresistible caption: “Hope masterminds an escape.”)
Other patients are clearly troubled. Wang Yuchao is a sixteen-year-old who was playing World of Warcraft ten hours a day by the time his parents gave up on him. In a series of powerful scenes in counselling sessions, we watch a family failing under the pressures of work and expectation. His father, a thin, taciturn man, admits to beating his son and trying to stab him “just to scare” him into obedience, before admitting that they have no way to communicate. “It’s worse than talking to a stranger,” the father says. The son threatens suicide. “At home, I feel I don’t exist,” he tells his parents, trying to explain why he escaped into the emotional refuge of a vast online world. “On the Internet, I have friends who care about me,” he says. A moment later, with little provocation, he picks up a metal stool and asks his father, “Do you want to die?”
The most revealing moments in “Web Junkie” have little to do with the Internet or addiction; they are about private, perceptual changes within families, as young Chinese men and their parents struggle with questions of individuality, personal freedom, self-development, and trust. Many of the parents seem to be loving but preoccupied, and they would prefer to pin their troubles on mysterious new technologies than on the underlying causes of their children’s distress. The parents, raised in another China, have no way to relate to their children, and little time to try. In one scene, a clinician places phone calls to parent after parent, trying in vain to persuade them to leave work and accompany their children in treatment. In a final reunion scene, parents greet their children awkwardly as a voice through a loudspeaker advises, “Parents, hug your kids.”
Professor Tao Ran, the founder of the center and a pioneer in Web-addiction treatment in China, is a particularly surprising character. At first, he is cast as the quack—Nurse Ratched in a military uniform, braying about the Web as “digital heroin.” But then he addresses a room full of parents and describes, perceptively, that a generation of only children, who face narrowing job prospects and heavy pressure to support their aging parents, present a challenge that China has never faced. “Do you know how lonely your kids are?” he asks. “So where do they look for friends? The Internet.” He adds, “They feel no heroism or satisfaction in their real lives.”
“Web Junkie” does not end with any tidy answers, and rightly so. The devotion that young Chinese feel to the Internet is driven by deep factors ranging from youth unemployment and income inequality to political repression and the demographic imbalance between men and women. Even for those who are growing up with more prosperity and autonomy than their parents ever imagined, the Web is a tantalizing respite from reality. In one scene, a kid is sitting patiently while a technician fits his head with a peculiar bonnet made of rubber tubing and wires. “Close your eyes and think about something happy,” the clinician says. Asked, upon his departure, what he learned at the Chinese Teen-Agers Mental Growth Center, one young man shrugs and says, “How to escape.”