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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Falun Gong became wildly popular in China during the late 1990s. For various reasons--perhaps because the membership of this movement was larger than that of the Chinese Communist party (and intersected with it), or because the legacy of Tiananmen was unresolved, or because 70 million people suddenly seemed to be looking for a way into heaven (other than money)--the party decided to eliminate it. In 1998, the party quietly canceled the business licenses of people who practiced Falun Gong. In 1999 came mass arrests, seizure of assets, and torture. Then, starting in 2000, as the movement responded by becoming more openly activist, demonstrating at Tiananmen and hijacking television signals on the mainland, the death toll started to climb, reaching approximately 3,000 confirmed deaths by torture, execution, and neglect by 2005.

At any given time, 100,000 Falun Gong practitioners were said to be somewhere in the Chinese penal system. Like most numbers coming out of China, these were crude estimates, further rendered unreliable by the chatter of claim and counterclaim. But one point is beyond dispute: The repression of Falun Gong spun out of control. Arrests, sentencing, and whatever took place in the detention centers, psychiatric institutions, and labor camps were not following any established legal procedure or restraint. As an act of passive resistance, or simply to avoid trouble for their families, many Falun Gong began withholding their names from the police, identifying themselves simply as "practitioner" or "Dafa disciple." When asked for their home province, they would say "the universe." For these, the nameless ones, whose families had no way of tracing them or agitating on their behalf, there may be no records at all.

In early 2006, the first charges of large-scale harvesting--surgical removal of organs while the prisoners were still alive, though of course the procedure killed them--of Falun Gong emerged from Northeast China. The charges set off a quiet storm in the human rights community. Yet the charge was not far-fetched.

Harry Wu, a Chinese dissident who established the Laogai Foundation, had already produced reams of evidence that the state, after executing criminals formally sentenced to death, was selling their kidneys, livers, corneas, and other body parts to Chinese and foreigners, anyone who could pay the price. The practice started in the mid-1980s. By the mid-1990s, with the use of anti-tissue-rejection drugs pioneered by China, the business had progressed. Mobile organ-harvesting vans run by the armed services were routinely parked just outside the killing grounds to ensure that the military hospitals got first pick. This wasn't top secret. I spoke with a former Chinese police officer, a simple man from the countryside, who said that, as a favor to a condemned man's friend, he had popped open the back of such a van and unzipped the body bag. The corpse's chest had been picked clean.

Taiwanese doctors who arranged for patients to receive transplants on the mainland claim that there was no oversight of the system, no central Chinese database of organs and medical histories of donors, no red tape to diminish medical profits. So the real question was, at $62,000 for a fresh kidney, why would Chinese hospitals waste any body they could get their hands on?

Yet what initially drew most fire from skeptics was the claim that organs were being harvested from people before they died. For all the Falun Gong theatrics, this claim was not so outlandish either. Any medical expert knows that a recipient is far less likely to reject a live organ; and any transplant dealer will confirm that buyers will pay more for one. Until recently, high volume Chinese transplant centers openly advertised the use of live donors on their websites.

It helps that brain death is not legally recognized in China; only when the heart stops beating is the patient actually considered dead. That means doctors can shoot a prisoner in the head, as it were, surgically, then remove the organs before the heart stops beating. Or they can administer anesthesia, remove the organs, and when the operation is nearing completion introduce a heart-stopping drug--the latest method. Either way, the prisoner has been executed, and harvesting is just fun along the way. In fact, according to doctors I have spoken to recently, all well versed in current mainland practices, live-organ harvesting of death-row prisoners in the course of execution is routine.