I want to thank the organizers: The International Society for Human Rights and particularly independent researcher Arne Schwarz for setting up this meeting so quickly. I also appreciate David Kilgour flying over from Canada and we are all honoured by your participation. I also want to mention those who have raised awareness of the organ harvesting issue in the Swiss press, specifically Frederic Koller. And finally in Berne, it is important to acknowledge the courageous politicians who have elevated the issue to the national level, specifically Carlo Sommaruga and Dick Marty.
One more point, because no investigation can proceed without research funding. So it is incumbent upon me to state those individuals and groups who have supported my research. Specifically: The Peder Wallenberg family of Sweden, the Earhart Foundation, and most recently, the National Endowment for Democracy.
“Organ tourism” is a term coined to describe the rapidly-growing practice of travelling across international borders to obtain a new kidney, liver, heart or cornea. And China has emerged as the leading transplant destination. You wait a week, not a year. They can accommodate practically any blood type, and the prices are relatively low.
In the early to mid-1990s, Chinese dissident Harry Wu produced seminal research establishing the primary source of organs as China's large prison and forced labor camp (laogai) population. Wu's Laogai Foundation uncovered executions 'to order' from a possible laogai pool of two to four million. In any given year, the total number of executions in China, as estimated by Amnesty International, exceeds capital punishment in the rest of the world combined. And in 2005, Chinese government officials admitted that the majority of the transplant organs did, in fact, come from condemned prisoners.
Several years ago, I began research for my second book on China, beginning with an exhaustive interview process with Falun Gong refugees. I interviewed fifty refugees from the Laogai system (that’s a comprehensive term referring to labor camps, prisons, detention centers, mental hospitals, and black jails). A surprising number of interviews (about 30%) included references to medical exams. I hasten to add that these examinations were mentioned in passing; my subjects were more interested in talking about spirituality and torture. But the exams were highly unusual, in part because
these were people who were being mistreated on a daily basis--working under brutal conditions, regular beatings, shocked by electric batons, and fed subsistence food at best.
The exams tended to use state of the art medical equipment. But they were only being given to political or religious prisoners, and they were administered by military doctors. And they were oddly incomplete. For example, the eye exam consisted of a doctor shining a light into the cornea, sometimes for minutes at a time. Yet there was no peripheral vision check, no follow the light, no eye chart—nothing in fact, that had anything to do with brain function.
This was followed by probing of the abdomen, blood test, urine test, electrocardiogram. But only those tests; no ears, nose, throat, genitals, lymph nodes, reflexes, or brain function were examined. Only the retail organs—the kidneys, the liver, the corneas, and the heart. Keep in mind: these were prisoners of conscience. No Chinese law could justify their execution.
Now the fact is that I had stumbled into this finding. And I confess I was nervous about it. In 2006, the Epoch Times (an international newspaper largely staffed by Falun Gong practitioners) had reported that organ harvesting of Falun Gong was widespread, and that the practitioners were harvested while they were still alive. Yet this report was initially based on a somewhat shaky witness. And the claim was quietly dismissed within journalist, NGO, human rights, and political circles. It sounded too sensational—too much like an urban legend, a bath-tub kidney story. Even after David Kilgour and David Matas put out their comprehensive report, and investigative phone calls seemed to suggest the complicity of eight hospitals in China, the original impression, the skepticism, stuck to a great extent, particularly in America.
So I was careful to parse my results. If a subject was on hunger strike, I threw the case out. If there were drugs present, the same. If I felt that the interview was tainted, that the subject was trying to give me the answers that I wanted, I chucked it.
That still left 15% of my cases that I could not explain. And I published those findings. But with a caveat: This investigation is still in an extremely primitive stage. In many ways it is like 1820; a handful of doctors, scientists, and amateur fossil hunters trying to make sense of a small, disjointed, pile of bones. Like the early days of the dinosaur hunters we don’t have much funding. Nor do we really consult with each other; meetings like this are rare. Several years have passed where we have been waiting for one doctor who performed organ harvesting on living prisoners of conscience to emerge from the Mainland. Until that happens, I used to say, we don’t even have bones.
But now I think we do. And here are some that I have found. These are bones that may lead to an understanding of an evolutionary story. Much of this material has never been revealed and I will be publishing it in detail shortly.
In 1992, we have the first report of specialized organ harvesting vans—retrofitted for that express purpose--being employed for the harvesting of prisoners on an execution ground in the Guangzhou region. 36 were executed on that Fall day. In one van the removal of three executed prisoners kidneys and corneas. All were middle-aged Han Chinese males—common criminals, most likely—yet one of them had an obvious sign of a wire on his neck. That’s a technique of silencing them in court. So we cannot rule out that it was a political prisoner.
I relate this research point with reasonable confidence because it is based on a face-to-face interview with a doctor now in Europe, a specialist in internal medicine. He was an intern at the time, and he participated in all three operations.
In 1994, A Uyghur man—the Central Asian ethnic group of Northwest China—had been employed by a special unit of the Chinese police. He was used to interrogate Uyghur prisoners, specifically playing the “good cop” and he did his job well. He also witnessed executions. And he was observant. For example he observed that the bullet was aimed at the right side of the chest, thus acting as a natural anesthesia, preventing the body from squirming while the organs were removed in the van, although it was theoretically possible that the heart was still beating. He also listened: In one case, his fellow policemen reported hearing screams coming from an on-site organ harvesting van. In 1995, the head doctor of his unit admitted to him that they were performing live organ harvesting on a regular basis.
I can relate this research point because that man has given his name, and every other detail to me in an exhaustive two-day interview—on-tape, on-camera, a full confession. Out of deference and respect to his lawyer’s delicate negotiations as to his refugee status—and because I am personally concerned about the safety and well-being of this rather brave man and I hope to interview more like him—I will not say his name in this forum.
Yet there is another man who has given his name: a Uyghur doctor who actually performed a live organ harvesting operation on a prisoner in 1995, in the Urumqi area. His full story will be revealed soon in publication.
Now in the Winter of 1997, the so-called “Gulja Incident” took place. In essence, a series of Uyghur demonstrations over the refusal of Chinese authorities to allow Ramadan gatherings was followed by a harsh and at times, bloody crackdown. In the aftermath, a nurse was working in a Gulja hospital. She remembers her time vividly. No medical personnel were allowed offer medical care to the young Uyghur demonstrators. And there was an abrupt separation of medical staff—Chinese and Uyghur—who had previously worked together. Under these conditions, she resigned from the hospital after six months.
Two events followed: a young Uyghur demonstrator died in police custody, hardly unusual at the time, but the family was able to procure the body for Islamic ritual cleansing before burial. The body had been harvested, and a near-riot followed. After that, all bodies were wrapped and buried at gunpoint. The second incident is perhaps, even more telling. A Uyghur family approached the nurse for medical help. A 21-year old Uyghur demonstrator had been harvested to provide kidneys for their own son, also a 21-year-old. The operation, performed in a military hospital in Urumqi, was failing. The family had paid 30,000 RMB, a small fortune by Chinese standards.
I can relate this research point because I interviewed the nurse in a secret location quite recently. Her testimony is limited, but important. It is the first confirmed case of a political and religious prisoner being harvested for their organs, well before the crackdown on Falun Gong took place in 1999.
In the same year, 1997, a hospital in Xinjiang had four or five very important patients, high-ranking Chinese officials by the description. And a young intern who did blood work in the hospital was told by his boss to go to a nearby prison that held Uyghur political prisoners. Sample their blood, he was told. Find out the distribution of blood types. We will do the rest.
The intern complied. Six months later, five more high-ranking officials were in the hospital and he was asked to sample the blood a second time.
I can relate this research point because the man who sampled the blood was willing to be interviewed, under great danger to his family and his livelihood.
So what can we conclusion can we draw from this evidence? I think what we can say, with reasonable confidence, is that Xinjiang was not just the atmospheric testing ground for nuclear weapons back in the Sixties. It was the testing ground for live organ harvesting, not just of prisoners convicted of capital crimes, but prisoners of conscience.
And what the Kilgour and Matas study shows, and my own interviews confirm this, is that with the introduction of Falun Gong, a vast increase in the Laogai System population, numbering between half a million to a million people at any time, organ harvesting grew exponentially.
In 2000, we have our first credible report of an organs-only exam.
By 2002: The Shenyang Detention Center gave a comprehensive physical to all the practitioners. Nothing unusual. But in September, the authorities started large, expensive blood tests (about 300 Swiss francs per subject), enough blood to fill up eight test-tubes per practitioner, enough for advanced diagnostics or tissue matching. Prisoners began arriving in the middle of the night and disappearing before dawn, with transports to “hospital civil defense structures” with names like Yida, a name that I think we will here again in our lifetimes.
In 2003: Falun Gong were examined alongside “Eastern Lightning”—that is, a Christian sect group. At the same time, according to my colleague Jaya Gibson, some Tibetan prisoners began receiving “organs-only” examinations, and being divided by blood type, suggesting that harvesting had spread into their population as well.
In 2005: The procedure become more explicit: One Falun Gong witness put it this way: “If people came in a stretcher, they were give cursory treatment. In good health, a comprehensive exam…They needed healthy people, young people. If you were an auntie in your sixties and seventies they wouldn’t pay attention to you.”
By 2006: According to a Falun Gong practitioner in Guandong Prison: “There was common knowledge of organ harvesting in the prison…Even before you die, your organs are already reserved.” Everyone knew which month the tour buses would arrive and where they would park in the courtyard. When the Falun Gong claims about harvesting surfaced in March, this man was in prison. He knew nothing. Yet he vividly remembers a large, panicky deportation of prisoners (perhaps 400 people) in May. “It was terrifying,” he says, and the timing is consistent: Mainland doctors were hinting at a close-of-business sale on organs at exactly this time.
So did it end?
In 2007, I spoke to a Taiwanese Surgeon who arranges transplants for his patients on the mainland. He was initially very defensive, but over the course of the interview, he buckled, admitted that it was happening. He had fought for the “Chinese price” for his patients, and the Chinese doctors respected his determination. They could not help themselves from letting him know that he was not only getting a good price for the organs, but that he was getting it from the healthiest source—Falun Gong.
Now it is a fact that the Chinese government denied the specific charges of Kilgour and Matas. Yet they also passed a law in July 2006 forbidding the sale of organs without the written consent of the donor. According to the doctor, three things happened in 2007. The organ supply tightened. Prices doubled. And transplants continued. So unless there has been a dramatic cultural shift since 2004, when a Chinese report confirmed that only 1.5% of kidneys used in transplants are donations from relatives, the lion’s share of the organs being sold recently must still come from Falun Gong or executed prisoners. Let’s assume it is regular prisoners—that’s what the Taiwanese doctor believed—and theorize that this new law was a signal; do your paperwork and stop harvesting Falun Gong. At least until the Olympics is over with.
And yet—in 2007, a woman, Ms. Liu, made it to Bangkok. She remembers her exams pretty well. Repeated urine tests, three times in a single month. Told to drink fluids and hold her pee until she got to the hospital. Diabetes or drug testing? It can’t be ruled out. But neither can kidney function assessment. And three major blood samples were drawn in the same month. That’s about a thousand bucks right there. Was the labor camp concerned with Liu’s health? Or the health of a particular organ? An organ perhaps, that was being tissue-matched with a high-ranking cadre or a rich foreign customer? Liu was a member of a non-transformed Falun Gong brigade which had a history of being used as organ source. Liu herself was not only considered to be non-transformable, but mentally ill. She was useless except for one purpose.
Now whether Liu is slightly mad or not isn’t the point. She is the closest approximation that we have to a nameless Falun Gong practitioner, the ones who—to protect their families—never gave their names or provinces to the authorities. These are the ones who lost their meager social protections. There were thousands of them, identified by numbers only. I have been told that number two hundred and something was a talented young female artist with nice skin, but I don’t really know. And we don’t know if any of them made it out of China alive.
Now there are major signs that the Chinese Communist Party has recently rejected the organ harvesting of prisoners of conscience, if not the organ harvesting of criminals period. There are pilot donation programs in major cities, prohibitions on organ tourism from the West, and a rejection of the practice of harvesting criminals of all stripes—it’s all in the official literature. Yet some refugee accounts—particularly from Tibet and Xinjiang—differ. In the final analysis, the answer to the question of whether the practice is continuing remains shrouded in state secrecy.
Yet one question that is often asked: “did the State know about these abuses?” is not a question at all. China is a surveillance state, the most sophisticated that the world has ever seen. But, like 1984, the surveillance is not aimed at the proles, but at the Party members and the military. And the military hospitals are no exception to this rule. And there is little question that the Chinese State is preparing to sweep the issue under the rug of history—a maneuver they have successfully used in the past—a maneuver in which the West tends to go along with.
Why else would it have taken us until this year to establish that the great Leap Forward led to the death not of millions, but of tens of millions of people? Only because this fact no longer threatens the Chinese Communist Party or our ability to do business with it. And so it seems it will be with organ harvesting, with this, the first Chinese mini-genocide of our current century.
Only through witnesses of great courage—and only through our courage to reward publicly and unreservedly, not punish, those who stand up, state their name, and what they did—only then will the Chinese State be held accountable to its own history and to the judgment of the Chinese people.