Friday, January 3, 2020

Bloody Harvest—How Everyone Ignored the Crime of the Century


In June of this year the China Tribunal delivered its Final Judgement and Summary Report.1 An independent committee composed of lawyers, human rights experts, and a transplant surgeon, the Tribunal was established to investigate forced organ harvesting on the Chinese mainland. These rumours have haunted the country for years—lurid tales of the fate suffered by members of the banned Falun Gong religion after being taken into police custody. Their organs, so the rumours go, are cut from their bodies while they are still alive, and then transplanted into waiting patients.

The Tribunal examined these claims, extending the group of victims to include Uyghur Muslims (among others), and its findings were unambiguous. “On the basis of all direct and indirect evidence, the Tribunal concludes with certainty that forced organ harvesting has happened in multiple places in the PRC [People’s Republic of China] and on multiple occasions for a period of at least twenty years and continues to this day.”2 Further to this, “the PRC and its leaders actively incited the persecution, the imprisonment, murder, torture, and the humiliation of Falun Gong practitioners with the sole purpose of eliminating the practice of, and belief in, the value of Falun Gong.”3 The Tribunal was also able to conclude, “with certainty,” that the Communist Party has been responsible for acts of torture inflicted on Uyghurs.4 These acts were found to constitute crimes against humanity.5

The Falun Gong religious group was outlawed in China twenty years ago, with President Jiang Zemin apparently deciding that the group’s expansion was a potential threat to his power—a competitor for the loyalties of the Chinese people. He branded the group an ‘evil cult’. The ensuing imprisonment and disappearance of large numbers of practitioners coincided with an enormous, unexplained provision of transplant hospitals, and a flood of new laboratories. Research into immunosuppressant drugs suddenly accelerated.6 China did not actually have a formal organ donation scheme until 2013, but this has presented no obstacle to the country’s transplant surgeons. They have been charging ahead with an estimated 69,300 transplants per year.7 Even the formal voluntary donors that now exist cannot hope to match this number: in 2017 the total number of eligible donors in the country was a paltry 5,146.8

Throughout most of the world the disparity between donor numbers and patient numbers leads to long waiting lists, but in China it is possible to get a heart transplant within a matter of days,9 and some individuals have been told that they can travel to the mainland on a specific date and immediately receive their transplant.10 In other words, the Chinese authorities know exactly when a particular person is due to die, and they can guarantee that a healthy heart will be found in the to-be-deceased. As stated in the Final Judgement, this “could only occur if there was an available bank of potential living donors who could be sacrificed to order.”11

The Tribunal heard that both Uyghur Muslims and Falun Gong practitioners received regular blood tests in detention. According to the testimony of former prisoner Gulbahar Jelilova, injections were given once every ten days, along with regular ultrasound tests.12 The blood cannot have been taken for the purpose of transfusion, because the quantities were too small. The purpose cannot have been infection control, because blood was only taken from the Falun Gong and Uyghur prisoners, rather than the entire population of each prison. There is, however, another reason that the authorities might need to take blood in this way. Blood testing is essential for organ transplantation, because the procedure involves a danger that the beneficiary’s antibodies will interact with antigens in the donor organs, prompting the body to reject the new organs. As for the ultrasound tests, these were surely carried out to establish the structural appearance and condition of internal organs, and this too is consistent with planned organ transplantation.13

It turns out that the Communist Party is hardly bothering to hide the identity of its human sacrifices. The Tribunal heard recordings of telephone calls made to Chinese hospitals by investigators from the World Organisation to Investigate the Persecution of Falun Gong (WOIPFG). Requests were made, in Mandarin, for organ transplants. When the callers enquired about the sources, most hospital staff were happy to reveal that the organs would be coming from Falun Gong prisoners (all that clean living and qigong exercise is thought to guarantee healthy body parts).14 In their arrogance, the Chinese authorities do not expect serious condemnation. In fact, they are now expanding the project. Human rights investigator Ethan Gutmann provided evidence to the Tribunal in December 2018, stating that “over the last 18 months, literally every Uyghur man, woman, and child – about 15 million people – have been blood and DNA tested, and that blood testing is compatible with tissue matching.”

All Falun Gong practitioners appearing as witnesses before the Tribunal were also able to describe the torture they suffered in detention. While none of these testimonies could be independently verified (for obvious reasons), the level of detail was striking, as were the similarities in the accounts. Prisoners were stripped, beaten, and kept awake for as much as 20 days at a time. Electric batons were used as a matter of course.15 The Final Judgement and Summary Report includes a vivid description of the ordeal of practitioner Jintao Liu: “They shoved faeces into his mouth. They forced a toilet brush handle into his anus. They pushed the handle so hard that he couldn’t defecate… They woke him at night by pouring cold water on him, or by piercing his skin with needles.”16 Women were given pills that stopped their menstrual cycles and caused disorientation, and many of them suffered mental breakdowns.17 Rape was routine: the prisoner Yin Liping told the Tribunal that she was locked in a room with more than forty men of unknown identity in the Masanjia Labour Camp on 19 April 2001, and raped by all of them.18

Incredibly, the Final Judgement has received minimal press coverage, despite the magnitude of the crimes described and the prestige of the Tribunal’s panel. The chair was Sir Geoffrey Nice QC, a barrister for forty-eight years and a judge for thirty-four. This was the man who led the prosecution of Serbian president Slobodan Milošević at the United Nations’ International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. The panel also included human rights lawyers from the United States, Iran, and Malaysia, and a thoracic transplant specialist of several decades’ standing.

The findings may have been dramatic, but the Tribunal’s approach was every bit as measured and sober as we might expect from a panel of such repute. Members were “alive to the risk of group enthusiasm operating on the minds of witnesses who are Falun Gong supporters.”19 They took care to avoid bias against the CCP, adopting the practice of examining each category of evidence in isolation, with the relevant evidence treated as if it related to an imaginary state with an excellent human rights record.20 Invitations to attend proceedings or to comment or provide evidence were sent out to China’s Ambassador to London, and also to various Chinese transplant physicians, and even Western doctors who have spoken in support of the Chinese regime (none took up the Tribunal’s offer).21 All of this seems like the kind of professionalism we would hope for. Why, then, has the China Tribunal been effectively ignored?

One reason could be that the international community has already made up its mind about this issue. The Transplantation Society and the World Health Organisation (WHO) have both stated that criticism of the Chinese human transplant system is unwarranted,22 and as the Tribunal’s Judgement admits, many separate governments and international organisations have also expressed their doubts concerning the allegations.23 There are exceptions—the governments of Israel, Spain, Italy, and Taiwan have now banned citizens from travelling to China for transplant surgery—but it has been far more common to raise a sceptical eyebrow at the reports.

This doubt may result in part from the movement’s alien ring to Western ears. Falun Gong? What the hell is that? Is it some kind of religion? Practitioners have often tried to insist that they are not a religion, not political, and not an organisation of any kind, but this has simply left open the question of what they are, exactly. The temptation has been to swallow the mainland propaganda, dismissing the group as a cult. Indeed, Gutmann observed the same Western suspicions in the wake of the Communist Party’s original crackdown in 1999: “Congress avoided using Falun Gong practitioners’ testimony in hearings, while the administration concentrated on the human rights of ‘traditional’ Chinese dissidents and the occasional House Christian. Hollywood stuck to the Dalai Lama.”24 If these people have questionable beliefs about the nature of reality, the West seemed to be asking, then why should we trust them about anything at all? But this attitude, says Ethan Gutmann, is like devaluing the currency to zero simply because there are counterfeit bills in circulation.

It is also worth noting that Uyghur Muslims were mentioned in the Tribunal’s Final Judgement. Falun Gong may be a mystery, but Islam should be familiar enough to Western governments. Sir Geoffrey Nice and his colleagues were quite clear that Uyghurs have been the victims of a crime against humanity. Why was the latter detail not picked up in the press? Perhaps it was simply lost in this year’s rush of coverage relating to the Xinjiang concentration camps.

The doubts of the international community may not result solely from a distaste for the Falun Gong. The British government has stated on several occasions that the evidence is insufficient to prove that forced organ harvesting has taken place. These statements might give the impression that the government has already carried out a careful examination of the available material. Indeed, Baroness Goldie and MP Mark Field have both made reference in Parliament to certain ‘analysis’ and ‘assessment’. However, the Tribunal’s requests to the Foreign Office to provide details of this analysis and assessment were always met with silence. It is difficult to escape the suspicion that no such analysis ever took place. This should lead us to ask what reasons the UK government might have to avoid investigating reports of egregious human rights violations.25 As for the WHO, it “operates in a multilateral stakeholder environment and may well be susceptible to political realities,” in the cutting observation of the Tribunal.26

Of course, we could give these governments and organisations the benefit of the doubt, attributing to them nothing more malign than a misguided scepticism. This would still be no excuse. The horror unveiled by the Tribunal was, if anything, a conservative estimate of the scale of the tragedy. The conclusions about organ harvesting related only to the Falun Gong—the Tribunal reached no similar conclusions about the Uyghurs (or House Christians, or Tibetan Buddhists, or Eastern Lightning).27 But testimonies abound, if we care to look for them. A defecting policeman has told Ethan Gutmann that when Uyghur prisoners were taken to be executed, they went with doctors in “special vans for harvesting organs.” Afterwards the bodies were encased in cement and buried in secrecy.28

Gutmann spoke to such doctors—men who had carried out blood tests on Uyghurs just as described in the Tribunal’s Final Judgement and Summary Report. They were able to provide him with the missing details. First, news would arrive that Communist Party officials had checked into a hospital with various organ problems. Staff would begin taking blood from Uyghurs at the prison, and when a corresponding blood type was found, they would move to tissue matching. The chosen prisoners would be shot in the right side of the chest so that death did not occur instantly. Blood types would be matched at the execution site, and soon enough “the officials would get their organs, rise from their beds, and check out.”29

No figures are available for the scale of Uyghur harvesting, but it should be clear that the China Tribunal presented only a small piece of the full tragedy. Indeed, it may never be possible to calculate any of the Chinese harvesting figures with real accuracy. The Falun Gong numbered 70 million when their own crackdown began30 —a small nation—and these millions were scattered in every direction. Some fled overseas in search of asylum, some went underground on the mainland, some renounced their former beliefs, some died in agony on cell floors or in the Party’s many specially-designed torture chambers. And some were harvested. Gutmann puts the latter figure at 65,000 during the early years (2000 to 2008), but arrest records—or records of any kind – are minimal.31 From the very beginning, practitioners were being wheeled into operating theatres in nameless droves.

Throughout 2006 the Falun Gong-run newspaper Epoch Times recorded a series of anecdotes from a single hospital in Sujiatun during those early years. One of these came from an accounting department employee who had become concerned about her husband, a surgeon at the hospital. He had been working strange hours, earning higher wages than normal, and displaying signs of mental breakdown. After nearly a year of this her husband came clean. He told her that there were extra patients hidden away in the subterranean depths of the hospital. The doctors were summoned whenever these special patients arrived, and they were expected to apply anaesthetic before removing the kidneys, skin tissue, corneas, and other organs. Some patients were still alive at the end while others were not, but all of them were quickly sent to the incinerator, after which the hospital staff would pocket rings and watches. Her husband told her that the patients were Falun Gong practitioners, and he said that there was never any need for paperwork.32

The Sujiatun accounts were dismissed by many because US officials from the regional consular office went to have a look for themselves. They found “no evidence that the site is being used for any function than as a normal public hospital.” But as Gutmann points out, “three weeks had elapsed between the publication of the first story in the Epoch Times and the consular visit – an eternity by Chinese construction standards.”33

There is too much of this to ignore. It is not possible, in good conscience, to simply dismiss the allegations. The Tribunal posed a thought experiment to demonstrate this: “Supposing it were said of either the UK or the USA that Muslims were being tortured to death in a prison in Leeds or Philadelphia… (and) that the allegations were entirely untrue although (they had been) made by a perfectly respectable organisation and had attracted attention in government committees in various countries. Would the simple denial be all that the UK or the USA would do on grounds that their word should be enough, and that it would be to honour an impertinence by doing more? Or might they do a great deal more, including… seeking redress from whoever made the totally false but believable allegation, and… throwing open the gates of the prison and offering sight of all records to an appropriate neutral team of observers?”34

The organ harvesting allegations have continued for the best part of two decades, and they show no sign of stopping. A major report was published as early as 2006 by two Canadian human rights attourneys, David Kilgour and David Matas (later expanded into a book, Bloody Harvest: Organ Harvesting of Falun Gong Practitioners in China). The evidence has continued to mount over the years, culminating in the investigations of the China Tribunal, and yet still the doubts persist. In the context of the sheer gravity of the allegations and the extended period over which they have been made, many international organisations and governments now stand condemned along with the Chinese Communist Party.

The evidence points to the crime of the century thus far, and a crime that bears comparison with the worst of the last century. “Victim for victim and death for death, the gassing of the Jews by the Nazis, the massacre by the Khmer Rouge, or the butchery to death of the Rwanda Tutsis may not be worse,” in the Tribunal’s blunt assessment.35 One of the chief culprits for this crime must surely be China’s leader at the time of the Falun Gong crackdown—the psychopathic Jiang Zemin. “Beating them to death is nothing,” Jiang is reported to have said. “If they are disabled from the beating, it counts as them injuring themselves. If they die, it counts as suicide!”36 Equally culpable are his most enthusiastic lieutenants: Bo Xilai, Wang Lijun, Zhou Yongkang.

However, the guilt is also shared by many ordinary individuals: surgeons, officials, prison guards, police. And they know it. “We are all going to hell,” said a Chinese medical director to a policeman who was working with him at the execution grounds, according to the latter’s testimony to Ethan Gutmann.37 Judgement has been delayed for the time being. But these crimes have been well documented by many brave individuals now, and the condemnation of history is inevitable. Eventually children across the world will read in their school textbooks about the Falun Gong Holocaust of the early twenty-first century, and everyone will know the names of the main perpetrators.


Aaron Sarin is a freelance writer living in Sheffield and currently working on a book about the nation-state system, cultural universals, and global governance. He regularly contributes to and you can follow him on Twitter @aaron_sarin 

Feature photo: Hundreds of supporters of the Chinese Falun Gong movement marched through the Prague centre on September 28, 2018, celebrating the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival, but also warning of the persecution of the movement in China. Ondrej Deml/CTK Photo/Alamy Live News

1 Independent Tribunal into Forced Organ Harvesting from Prisoners of Conscience in China – Final Judgement and Summary Report, 17 June 2019

2 Ibid., p19
3 Ibid., p35
4 Ibid., p25
5 Ibid., p53
6 Ibid., pp. 14-5
7 Ibid., pp. 30-1
8 Ibid., p45
9 Ibid., p32
10 Ibid., p18
11 Ibid., pp. 32-3
12 Ibid., pp. 24-5
13 Ibid., pp. 19-1
14 Ibid., p27
15 Ibid., pp. 26-7
16 Ibid., p22
17 Ibid., pp. 24-5
18 Ibid., p26
19 Ibid., p7
20 Ibid., p9
21 Ibid., p6
22 Ibid., p37
23 Ibid., p1
24 Ethan Gutmann – The Slaughter: Mass Killings, Organ Harvesting, and China’s Secret Solution to its Dissident Problem (Prometheus Books, New York, 2014), pp. 103-4
25 Final Judgement and Summary Report, op. cit., p38
26 Ibid., p37
27 Ibid., p47
28 Gutmann, op. cit., p23
29 Ibid., p26
30 Ibid., p70
31 Ibid., p279
32 Ibid., p222
33 Ibid., pp. 222-3
34 Final Judgement and Summary Report, op. cit., p41
35 Final Judgement and Summary Report, op. cit., p1
36 Ibid., p13
37 Gutmann, op. cit., p17

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