Deng Senshan had never skipped school, never been diagnosed with a mental illness and, according to his family, surfed the Web only on weekends.
Yet on Aug 1, the 15-year-old was admitted to a rehab camp for Internet addiction (IA), where, after being ordered to run 5 km as part of his "treatment", he was beaten to death by counselors.
A typical Internet cafe in Wuhu, Anhui province. China has 320 million Internet users, among whom 10 million are "teenage Web addicts". [Agencies]
The tragedy has highlighted the worrying lack of supervision for the ever-growing number of private IA "reboot" clinics, some of which employ extreme and potentially lethal techniques.
China has around 320 million Internet users, the world's largest online population, and, according to a China Youth Internet Association survey last year, 10 million are "teenage Web addicts".
The association announced last week there were at least 400 private rehab clinics dotted across the country.
However, the Ministry of Health (MOH) said Tuesday not one is legally registered, while the nation has no official diagnostic method to assist doctors or clear guidance for parents worried about a youngster's Internet usage.
Deng was booked to stay for 30 days at the Qihang Salvation Training Camp in Nanning, Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region. According to an agreement his parents signed with the camp on his arrival, he was there to "stop his bad behavior, regain confidence and establish positive life attitudes", while counselors were permitted to use any necessary approach to cure him as long as they did not abuse him or damage his health.
He arrived at 1 pm on Aug 1 and within 14 hours had been pronounced dead at a health center in nearby Wuxu, where he was sent "suffering a high fever", according to camp staff.
"He used to get good scores at school before he got hooked on online games last year," said his uncle Li Jian in an exclusive interview with China Daily. "His parents and teachers tried several times to persuade him to cut down but he didn't listen.
"Actually, my nephew's addiction was not even severe. He had never skipped school and just surfed online during weekends. His parents just wanted to help him."
The camp charged 7,000 yuan ($1,000) and promised to supervise Deng 24 hours a day for the first few days of training. But Li said the teenager, who graduated from Ziyuan County No 2 Middle School in Guilin last month, was put in solitary confinement within hours of his arrival and then brutally beaten after he was accused of running too slowly during an exercise.
His father, Deng Fei, who was called to identify the body at a Nanning funeral parlor, said the boy's face was covered in blood and his wrists were bruised from the handcuffs he was forced to wear, said Li.
"Several counselors ordered Deng to run about 5 km but the boy didn't finish and became rebellious. So he had some conflicts with counselors," camp president Xia Zheng was quoted as saying in the Shanghai Morning Post.