The Chinese Psychiatric Association de-listed homosexuality as a mental disorder in 2001, effectively de-legitimizing “conversion therapy,” but the pseudo-science of “correcting” people’s sexual orientation or gender identity continues in the PRC, sometimes under the guise of treating “internet addiction” or other behavioral issues. Many people are forced into it by their families—LGBTQ minors are especially vulnerable, but adults are also pressured into treatment. And “pathologizing views of LGBT people are still widespread in the mental health profession” in China, according to a December 2020 report for OutRight Action International by Darius Longarino.
China is not the only country where this practice quietly continues: As the U.K. sets out to ban conversion therapy, the Washington Post notes that only Brazil, Ecuador, Malta, and Germany have some form of national prohibition against it.
In this May 17 story for the WeChat public account To Cure Sometimes (@偶尔治愈), run by the health information site dxy.com, reporter Wang Dashi peers into these underground “correctional centers” with the help of LGBTQ rights activists, including one woman whose mission is to rescue people from the same baseless torture that she herself underwent. CDT has translated the bulk of the article here:
Treating an Imaginary Illness: 20 Years of “Conversion Therapy” in China
The volunteers were asking everywhere about Kecheng, a child from Shandong Province who had been sent to a “corrective treatment” facility in November.
The most recent information they had on Kecheng was from four months ago. They were able to find Kecheng’s mother, but she told them Kecheng was busy preparing for college entrance exams and couldn’t be disturbed.
In actuality, according to her classmates, Kecheng didn’t even show up to the testing site on January 8 for the provincial English listening comprehension test.
That was the last anyone had heard about her.
Kecheng was an outstanding young student. In 2017, she was named all-around champion at the Asian Robotics Championships. That same year, she finished first at the National Youth Informatics League Competition.
As she explained on Zhihu, Kecheng had determined that there was an abnormality with her sex chromosomes. Male chromosomes are usually XY, and females are XX, but Kecheng’s were XXY. Individuals with abnormal sex chromosomes such as Kecheng’s are known as “intersex.” The genitals, hormones, sex chromosomes or other reproductive characteristics of intersex individuals may not match those of typical males or females.
In 2020, when Kecheng was 18, she decided to change her gender—she would be a girl.
But her parents insisted that she was a boy. There were just some issues with “his” body, they said.
In early November , Kecheng wrote about her journey and “came out” to the OI group (an online group formed by and for National Informatics Olympiad participants).
Her parents discovered she was taking hormones in preparation for gender reassignment surgery. Her mother took the drugs away, and became uncharacteristically sensitive over the next few days. She got up in the middle of the night to burn incense to the Child-Giving Guanyin.
Her parents told her they wanted to take her to get medical help. Sometimes they said they were going to take her to see a psychiatrist at the Peking University Sixth Hospital. Other times, they said they were taking her to the Reproductive Medicine Center in Nanjing.
They tried to take Kecheng’s cell phone away, cutting off her communication with the outside world.
On November 29, Kecheng frantically sent out 26 SOS text messages, and then disappeared. She even left a power of attorney letter for her friends to bring to the police. A volunteer named Ranran and her colleagues came into possession of the letter, and they went to the police for help.
The volunteers emphasized that Kecheng had already turned 18 years of age. She was an adult, entitled to full control over her activities. But the police replied that Kecheng’s parents were her guardians and posed no risk to her, and that therefore they were “unable to open a case.” “The parents won’t harm their own son,” the police said.
Kecheng’s mother sent Ranran a photo and urged her to “stop meddling.”
The photo showed Kecheng wearing camouflage. There were two people cleaning behind her, wearing school uniforms. Next to Kecheng stood a man, also wearing camouflage. A surveillance camera was also visible in the room.
The volunteers questioned her mother: “Aren’t you afraid she will hate you, after treating her like this?”
“If he hates me, so be it,” she said. “I can’t watch him destroy himself in front of my eyes.”
“Do you really understand what she’s going through?” the volunteers asked.
“He is a very healthy young boy,” she said, stressing the last word: “boy.”
They gave up on her parents, but they didn’t give up on Kecheng. The volunteers traced her to Dagushan Village in Changqing District, Jinan City. Here, tens of miles from the urban center, was an organization called “Hongkai Consulting.”
According to information listed on the [business directory] website Tianyancha, Hongkai Consulting specializes in educational information consulting, psychological counseling, and cultural and artistic behavioral consulting. The campus is surrounded by high walls and wire fencing.
On its website, Hongkai Consulting describes its mission as correcting the bad behavior and psychological problems of young people, such as rebelliousness, internet addiction, truancy, hatred of school, premature dating, stubbornness, selfishness, apathy, lack of ideals, lack of morals, etc. As the site further explains, the business is the result of a merger between the Jinan Hongkai School and the Jinan New Dawn School. They have been “professionally focused on correcting the bad behaviors and habits of young people for the last 12 years.”
There are at least three “Hongkai Series” educational organizations in Shandong Province: Hongkai Training, founded in 2011; Yishui Hongkai Educational Consulting Co., Ltd., founded in 2018; and Hongkai Consulting, founded in 2020.
Hongkai Consulting remains in operation.
Ranran, one of the volunteers on Kechen’s case, went through enormous family drama seven years ago.
Ranran, who is transgender, was forced to abandon her studies abroad and return to China when her family found out that she was taking hormones.
“Sexual minorities, whether they are gay or transgender, often face conflict with their families,” Ranran says. “In less serious cases, there may be some yelling or physical aggression. In more serious cases, you may get kicked out of the house. But the worst thing that can happen is being sent to one of these ‘conversion schools.’”
After Ranran’s family discovered that she was considering transitioning, her mother brought her to Shanghai Mental Health Center. “She went ballistic when the doctors tried to talk to her. She trashed the director’s office.”
Her mother didn’t give up there. She continued to drag Ranran to all kinds of treatments, in hopes of bringing her back around. “Things like ‘body, mind and soul’ therapy, Buddhist summer camps, we tried it all.”
[…]In 1991, the World Health Organization announced that homosexuality would no longer be considered a mental disorder. In 2001, homosexuality was removed from the list of mental disorders in the third edition of the Chinese Classification of Mental Disorders (CCMD-3) .
Medically speaking, these revisions eliminated the theoretical basis for “correcting” sexual orientation and gender identity. But the business of “correction” has not stopped.
The Fourth People’s Hospital Internet Addiction Treatment Center in Linyi City was established in 2006, directed by Yang Yongxin. The objective of the center was simple: No matter what a child’s issue was—poor performance in school, depression, or homosexuality—the cause was internet addiction. Just send them in for treatment, and everything could be resolved.
The “Internet Addiction Center” even formed a team of “rangers” made up of “enthusiastic parents” that it could mobilize to abduct a child and bring them in for “treatment.” All they needed was the parents’ permission—it did not matter if the individual was still a minor or had already turned 18.
The China Central Television program “Economics in Half an Hour” (经济半小时) reports that Yang Yongxin’s Internet Addiction Center has taken in over 81 million yuan in revenue. In the segment about the center, one individual who had undergone electroshock therapy called the institution “inhumane” and “perverse.”
Media exposés of Yang’s Internet Addiction Center began to proliferate in 2009. The center lost its accreditation. Large-scale conversion therapy centers began going underground.
Huang Xiaodi attempted to escape from a “correctional” center.
She only made it out for seven days.
In 2019, soon after celebrating her 17th birthday, Huang’s father dragged her to a “school for moral quality,” located on Gele Mountain in Zhongliang Town, Chongqing.
As soon as Huang entered, her cell phone was taken away. The lead instructor, Mr. Zhang, cut off her long hair. Her father sighed, “You finally look like a man.” She was left there to undergo “training.”
Training began at 6:00 a.m. every morning, when the “students” would get out of bed and go on a run. Their comforters had to be folded into a neat cube, or else they would be punished. They trained in teams all morning. If any one did something wrong, the entire team would be punished. There were two hours of rest in the middle of the day, but as for whether or not they would actually get to rest, that was up to the whim of Mr. Zhang.
The school was completely walled-in, and the dorms were secured with iron locks. Metal bars were installed on all the windows in the dorm rooms and hallways. All the entrances and exits to the school were guarded by teachers. There was even a teacher assigned to every bedroom for 24-hour surveillance.
The teachers imposed a huge list of rules on the students. They were not allowed to talk while having meals, or to have any private interactions at all. They were not allowed to make any physical contact or eye contact. Most importantly, they had to follow orders from the teachers and administrators.
One time, Mr. Zhang knocked Huang to the floor and began kicking her because she hadn’t cleaned her shoes.
Of course, her parents did not know about this. The photos on her mother’s phone were only of Huang doing team exercises, or of her standing in a line of stone-faced children.
Her father came back three months later to check on her progress. Mr. Zhang took Huang out to meet him, saying he was just guiding her. In reality it was to keep her from blurting out the truth.
While her father was buying some snacks, Huang seized the opportunity to get away, beginning her seven days on the run. She was able to make it to the city center of Chongqing. She lived on tap water and stolen take-out at Southwest Hospital. She was finally caught when she tried to send out an S.O.S. message.
Her father thought she “wasn’t done” and sent her back to the school.
In March of that same year, a recent medical school graduate in applied psychology, Leslie, saw a job posting online for a school psychologist at a boarding school.
She looked up the school’s certifications online. Convinced that everything was above board, Leslie went in to interview, and they asked her to “come to work the next day.”
This was Huang’s school, over 20 kilometers from the city center.
She watched as 30 students in camouflage uniforms were led by the teachers into the classroom. The teachers sat in the back row, where they watched the students like hawks.
The students ranged in age from nine to 17. From that very first class, Leslie had a nagging feeling that something just wasn’t right. “The students all sat with their hands on their desks, and they were sitting up so straight, like a bunch of mannequins, emotionless.”
Leslie asked the students, What would you like to learn? No one answered. A roar came from the back row: “The teacher asked you a question. Raise your hands!” Then, whoosh! All the students raised their hands.
Even as the school psychologist, Leslie’s activities were limited. “There were cameras everywhere. The teachers were following the students around 24 hours a day.”
She was only able to learn some basics about students’ circumstances during one-on-one sessions. “Kids who stole things, kids who fought, who played video games, and gay and transgender kids made up about a third of the students.”
The academic affairs director told her that the children were all internet addicts, that they were rebellious, romantically precocious, and apathetic toward their family.
“I would ask them, Do you know what’s wrong with you? They would say, ‘I’m depressed,’ ‘I’m manic,’ ‘I’m bipolar (manic-depressive).’”
After class, she spoke with a child who had been sent to the school for a gambling addiction. “I asked him, Do your parents play cards? He said, ‘My parents played cards when I was inside my mother’s belly.’ The parents play cards, the child plays cards. No wonder their kid is addicted to gambling—he learned it from them.”
She always felt that it was the parents, not the children, who had problems.
“But the teachers told me that the parents were all wonderful. Their kids just weren’t grateful. They sent them there because they loved them, to get some tough love, to teach them some gratitude. The director even told me: After the kids are all reformed, their parents will thank us.”
Leslie had a roster that listed how long each child had been at the school. It ranged from three months to two years.
Leslie was unsettled by what she saw. She left the school before her trial period was over. She didn’t even take her first month’s salary.
After Leslie quit, Huang Xiaodi was “not completely reformed.” Nearly a year after she was brought to the school, she saw her parents. Mr. Zhang insinuated that it was time to pay again, but her parents could no longer come up with the 30,000 yuan tuition.
They sent Huang to a military school in Dengfeng, Henan Province, to continue her “correction.” This time, after just three days at the new school, she made up her mind to run away.
“Conversion therapy is rooted in lack of awareness about and sex and gender,” [Peng] Yanzi said.
As a founder of LGBT Rights Advocacy China, Yanzi receives calls for help like this every week.
In 2014, he experienced conversion therapy himself.
At the time, he was trying to change his sexual orientation. He found a clinic on Baidu called “Xinyu Piaoxiang” in Chongqing that claimed to be able to “correct sexual orientation.”
The clinic’s main technique was “aversion therapy.” During sessions, workers attempted to hypnotize him and guide him through visualizations of sexual encounters with the same sex while administering electric shocks.
Three thousand yuan later, not only was Yanzi unchanged, he had sustained physical injury from the electric shocks. “For a long time, every time I thought about that therapy, my hands would start to shake uncontrollably.”
Once he learned that conversion therapy had no scientific basis, Yanzi brought a law suit against the clinic and won.
The court ruled that “homosexuality is not a disease” and that “any therapy claiming to be able to change a person’s sexual orientation is engaged in false advertising.”
Like Yanzi, Xiao Lin and Xiao Wei both attempted to change their sexual orientation.
In 2011, Xiao Lin found a clinic in Shenzhen through an online search. The college graduate was locked in bitter conflict over his mother after she found out he had a boyfriend.
Doctors told him the most effective method was a combination of electroshock and psychotherapy.
A single course of the therapy cost over 8,000 yuan, and the doctor said three courses were needed to change his sexual orientation. While undergoing therapy over the next two months, Xiaolin suffered from insomnia. He was always in a trance-like state. There was no way he could complete three courses. His sexual orientation did not change.
In 2014, Xiao Wei went to a TCM mental hospital in hopes of changing his sexual orientation. The doctor diagnosed him with a “sexual orientation impediment.” The reason for his illness: “blocked meridians.”
Over the next three months, Xiao Wei was treated with injections at acupressure points all over his body. The total price for the treatment was over 10,000 yuan. It had no effect whatsoever.
After his successful court case, Yanzi and his partners founded LGBT Rights Advocacy China, with the goal of helping other conversion therapy victims.
“Over the past five years, we’ve collected the names of over 100 organizations that conduct conversion therapy, and the list keeps growing,” Yanzi said. Most of the people who call their helpline are between the ages of 20 and 30, but they get calls from minors all the time, most of whom are being forced or tricked into undergoing conversion therapy.
Yanzi takes notes on these calls. “Other organizations receive calls for help like this as well.”
Xiao Zhu was born biologically male, but from a young age, she was aware that she was different from other people. For a time, she thought she was gay. She became depressed during her second year of middle school. She often cried deep into the night, thinking, “How much better it would have been if I had been born a girl.”
After realizing she was transgender and “coming out” to the people around her, it felt as if her life was taking a turn for the better. But her mother didn’t approve.
In 2019, when Xiao Zhu was 18, her mother forced her to undergo conversion therapy in a private TCM hospital in Shandong Province. Her daily “therapy” consisted of having three bottles of Chinese medicine injected into her body. She later switched to “brain wave therapy,” during which she would wear a vibrating headband that delivered small electric pulses around her head.
Her mother even rented a suite in the adjacent hotel, arranging to have Xiao Zhu stay with a “strong man.” Xiao Zhu was left with no other option but to send out a call for help online. Her Weibo post was shared over 4,000 times. The police and local social services volunteers eventually came knocking at the door, finally putting the farce to an end.
According to Yanzi, conversion therapy continues to be practiced in many forms.
Most people are forced to take antidepressants when they get to the hospital, and some are forced to take male virility drugs. Some places even lock therapy patients in their rooms.
In private clinics, conversion therapy may include hypnosis, flicking rubber bands, putrid smells, even genital electrocution.
But worst of all are the internet addiction schools. The students don’t just lose their freedom: they’re subjected to corporal punishment, verbal abuse, beatings, and psychological torture.
“None of these schools will actually say they do conversion therapy,” Yanzi says. “That would cause them a lot of trouble getting accreditation.”
Some suspect that one of the reasons these places still exist is because of a loophole in the CCMD-3.
After homosexuality was declassified as a psychological disorder in 2001, a new section was created, one holdover remained: “egodystonic homosexuality” was moved to a new subsection titled “Sexual Orientation Disorders.”
The head of the CCMD-3 working group at the time, Chen Yanfang, told Phoenix Weekly that the new standards took childhood anxiety and distress into account, and that keeping the entry on “egodystonic homosexuality” was consistent with the World Health Organization’s Tenth Revision of the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems (ICD-10). “A diagnosis would only apply to those who feel upset over their sexual orientation and wish to change it,” he said at the time.
In the ICD-11, published on June 18, 2018, all diagnostic codes related to sexual orientation were eliminated. In late 2018, China’s National Health Commission required all medical institutions to fully implement ICD-11 standards for disease classification and coding starting March 1, 2019.
It was that year, 2019, that Ranran underwent gender reassignment surgery, paid for with her own money, and changed her ID card.
Her mind and body were devastated by all those therapies she had undergone. In the end, she resorted to self-harm to convince her family that she could not change.
At present, transgender individuals still need proof of “transsexualism” from a hospital psychiatry department in order to undergo gender reassignment surgery. The required documentation includes a letter of informed consent from the individual’s parents, a certificate issued by their work or residence, and a statement from the local police station verifying that the patient does not have a criminal record. In addition, the individual must be at least 20 years of age.
Ranran later founded an organization in Suzhou dedicated helping people who had also gone through conversion therapy.
Once a conversion therapy victim contacts them for help, Ranran organizes volunteers to rescue them.
If the caller is at a public hospital, they report the situation to health authorities, citing the newly revised Mental Health Law, which stipulates a principle of voluntary treatment for inpatient treatment of mental disorders: If neither the family nor the hospital can provide evidence that the individual poses risk of harm to themselves or to others, it is illegal to force someone treatment against their will.
But if they’re dealing with an internet addiction school, the rescue effort becomes much more challenging.
According to Liu Minghui, a professor at China Women’s University, China has no laws that prohibit conversion therapy for gay or transgender individuals. As she writes in China Women’s News: “The use of electroshock and other physically and mentally harmful conversion therapies on transgender individuals must be stopped. It is my hope that the National Health and Family Planning Commission will issue orders prohibiting any institution or individual from carrying out conversion therapy, in accordance with constitutionally-guaranteed human rights, and in order to protect the physical and mental well-being of sexual minorities.”
Ranran reported Kecheng’s situation to the police multiple times, but their response was always the same: “This is family business.”
On December 4, 2020, Ranran posted a message to Weibo announcing that their rescue effort had failed. “I am extremely sorry to report that this case has come to an end… Please don’t cheer us on anymore. I… admit defeat. I can’t save Kecheng. Please forgive me!”
Nine days later, Ranran was sent photos of the floorboards from the former location of Hongkai Training School, covered in handwritten inscriptions: “Days at Hongkai: 13.” “59 days. “66 days.” “85 days.” “ Days at Hongkai: 133.”
“I can’t take it anymore.”
The names of the individuals interviewed for this article have been changed to protect their privacy. [Chinese]
Translation by Little Bluegill.