The report released by New York-based Human Rights Watch, based on interviews with 17 people subjected to the widely criticized techniques since 2009, comes as awareness has grown in China regarding the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
Homosexuality was removed from China's official list of mental illnesses more than 15 years ago, but stories of families enrolling relatives in treatments seeking to change their sexual orientation remain common.
Yang Teng, a Chinese gay rights activist, said a staff member at a private clinic in the southwestern city of Chongqing administered an electric shock to his finger as he was told to think about a time he had had sex with a man.
"The experience had left a deep psychological impact on me," Yang, who was not involved in the Human Rights Watch report, said in an interview Tuesday. He said one session at a clinic in the southwestern city of Chongqing in 2014 cost him 500 Chinese yuan ($75).
The rights group's report says many victims of conversion therapy were forcibly brought to hospitals by their families, which became the subject of a groundbreaking lawsuit earlier this year. The hospitals locked patients in their rooms to prevent escapes.
According to the report's findings, patients were verbally harassed by doctors, called "sick," ''pervert," and "dirty," and some had to undergo "aversion therapy," where patients were forced to take nausea-inducing medication while watching gay pornography, so that they would associate sexual arousal with nausea.
Chinese society continues to strongly favor children who can pass on their family name, and since same-sex marriage is not legal and same-sex couples may not adopt jointly, gay and lesbian people feel compelled to enter heterosexual marriages and have children.
China also has no laws protecting people from discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, which deters victims of conversion therapy from seeking justice out of fear that their sexual orientation will be made public.
Under guidelines issued by the National Health Committee, the government is required to investigate activities by hospitals that could violate the Mental Health Law, which prohibits forced confinement of people unless they pose a danger to others. But the government has yet to issue clear guidelines prohibiting conversion therapy and holding abusers accountable.
The practice of conversion therapy persists because "many doctors are ignorant about homosexuality, and just follow the mainstream opinion, which is that being gay is abnormal, a sickness that must be treated," said Wang Long, an LGBT activist from Zhejiang province.
The scope of public activism by LGBT rights groups is restricted and the depiction of gay people on television and popular web streaming services is banned.
Despite that, activists say there has been some progress on LGBT rights, noting that Shanghai has hosted an annual gay pride parade since 2009 and internet censors have tolerated increasingly open debate about LGBT issues.
Conversion therapy is also a profitable business; doctors and clinics can charge up to 30,000 yuan ($4,500) for "treatment," said Boris Dittrich, advocacy director of the Human Rights Watch LGBT Rights Program.
Driven by profit and unchecked by the law, doctors will "tell parents that as long as they are willing to pay, they will offer a cure," said Yang, the activist. "And families, lacking in any kind of education on homosexuality, will pay as much money as they can to get their children converted."
In July, a gay man successfully sued a mental hospital over forced conversion therapy, in what activists hailed as a rare victory for the LGBT community. The court in Zhumadian in Henan province ordered a city psychiatric hospital to publish an apology in local newspapers and pay the 38-year-old man 5,000 yuan ($750) in compensation.
The man, surnamed Yu, had been forcibly confined to the institution in 2015 by his wife and relatives and was diagnosed with "sexual preference disorder." He was forced to take medicine and receive injections until he was released 19 days later.
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