The Magazine

China's Gruesome Organ Harvest

The whole world isn't watching. Why not?

Nov 24, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 10 • By ETHAN GUTMANN
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Bangkok

The jeepney driver sizes us up the minute we climb in. My research assistant is a healthy, young Israeli dude, so I must be the one with the money. He addresses his broken English to me: "Girl?"

No. No girls. Take us to the .  .  .

"Ladyboy? Kickboxer?"

No. No ladyboy, no kickboxer, thanks. I may be a paunchy, sweaty, middle-aged white guy, but I'm here to--well, actually, I am on my way to meet a Chinese woman in a back alley. She is going to tell me intimate stories of humiliation, torture, and abuse. And the truly shameful part is that after 50 or so interviews with refugees from Chinese labor camps, I won't even be listening that closely.

I'm in Bangkok because practitioners of Falun Gong, the Buddhist revival movement outlawed by Beijing, tend to head south when they escape from China. Those without passports make their way through Burma on motorcycles and back roads. Some have been questioned by U.N. case workers, but few have been interviewed by the press, even though, emerging from Chinese labor camps, they are eager, even desperate, to tell their stories. With the back-alley Chinese woman, I intend to direct my questions away from what she'll want to talk about--persecution and spirituality--to something she will barely remember, a seemingly innocuous part of her experience: a needle jab, some poking around the abdomen, an X-ray, a urine sample--medical tests consistent with assessment of prisoners for organ harvesting.

My line of inquiry began in a Montreal community center over a year ago, listening to a heavy-set middle-aged Chinese man named Wang Xiaohua, a soft-spoken ordinary guy except for the purple discoloration that extends down his forehead.

He recalled a scene: About 20 male Falun Gong practitioners were standing before the empty winter fields, flanked by two armed escorts. Instead of leading them out to dig up rocks and spread fertilizer, the police had rounded them up for some sort of excursion. It almost felt like a holiday. Wang had never seen most of the prisoners' faces before. Here in Yunnan Forced Labor Camp No. 2, Falun Gong detainees were carefully kept to a minority in each cell so that the hardened criminals could work them over.

Practitioners of Falun Gong were forbidden to communicate openly. Yet as the guards motioned for them to begin walking, Wang felt the group fall into step like a gentle migrating herd. He looked down at the red earth, streaked with straw and human waste, to the barren mountains on the horizon. Whatever lay ahead, Wang knew they were not afraid.

After 20 minutes, he saw a large gleaming structure in the distance--maybe it was a hospital, Wang thought. The summer of 2001 had been brutal in South China. After he'd worked for months in the burning sun, Wang's shaved head had become deeply infected. Perhaps it was getting a little better. Or perhaps he had just become used to it; lately he only noticed the warm, rancid stench of his rotting scalp when he woke up.

Wang broke the silence, asking one of the police guards if that was the camp hospital ahead. The guard responded evenly: "You know, we care so much about you. So we are taking you to get a physical. Look how well the party treats you. Normally, this kind of thing never happens in a labor camp."

Inside the facility, the practitioners lined up and, one by one, had a large blood sample drawn. Then a urine sample, electrocardiogram, abdominal X-ray, and eye exam. When Wang pointed to his head, the doctor mumbled something about it being normal and motioned for the next patient. Walking back to camp, the prisoners felt relieved, even a tad cocky, about the whole thing. In spite of all the torture they had endured and the brutal conditions, even the government would be forced to see that practitioners of Falun Gong were healthy.

They never did learn the results of any of those medical tests, Wang says, a little smile suddenly breaking through. He can't help it. He survived.

I spoke with Wang in 2007, just one out of over 100 interviews for a book on the clash between Falun Gong and the Chinese state. Wang's story is not new. Two prominent Canadian human rights attorneys, David Kilgour and David Matas, outlined his case and many others in their "Report into Allegations of Organ Harvesting of Falun Gong Practitioners in China," published and posted on the web in 2006.

By interviewing Wang, I was tipping my hat to the extensive research already done by others. I was not expecting to see Wang's pattern repeated as my interviews progressed, nor did I expect to find that organ harvesting had spread beyond Falun Gong. I was wrong.