Shanghai pride
The Shanghai Gay Pride annual summer event is the first of its kind in mainland China. Reuters

China could welcome in a new era for gay rights this week as activists launch legal proceedings against a clinic that advertises gay-to-straight conversion therapy.

If the case, which will be heard in a Chinese court on Thursday, is successful, it could become a legal milestone in the fight to stop homosexuality being treated as an illness.

Homosexuality was officially declassified as a mental disorder in China in 2001, but conversion clinics like the Nanjing Urban Psychiatric Consultancy Centre, which will have to face campaigners this week, still exist around the country.

Dr Zhou Zhengyou claims to have successfully "cured" 70% of gay patients at the Nanjing centre. He charges £120 (£70) per session.

Zhou says he uses counselling alone to treat his patients and does not use the aversion therapy techniques offered by clinics elsewhere in China, though he defended the use of such methods.

He told BBC World Tonight: "One common method is electric shock. When the patient has a gay thought, we electrocute them or inject them with drugs that make them sick."

That the Chinese government is allowing LGBT activists to challenge gay conversion therapy in the courts is a landmark move for the typically conservative country.

Gay relationships were made legal in China in 1997 and attitudes towards gay and transgender people have been slow to evolve, though there are signs progress is being made, such as Shanghai's burgeoning gay district and annual Gay Pride event.