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Bodies at an Exhibition

New questions about the origins of the plastinated human specimens now touring the world

Jul 29, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 43 • By ETHAN GUTMANN
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Vienna
I have taken my first steps into “Body Worlds,” an exhibition at Vienna’s Museum of Natural History, and it has sparked a memory. The room where I am standing—dark, somber, strangely hushed—exhibits fetuses at various stages of development, placed on blocks that evoke a pagan circle of standing stones. The show’s mastermind, German doctor Gunther von Hagens, has suctioned all the liquid and fat from the small bodies and filled the soft tissues with hard plastic through his ingenious process of “plastination.” Usually, if you see a fetus in a museum, it is floating in a jar of liquid and is red or yellow and translucent. These bodies seem to be flat gray, and that is what ignites the flashback, a surreal freeze-frame of my son, born a month prematurely by C-section: As the medical staff pulled him out of my wife’s womb, just for a second, his flesh looked gray. 

Plastination

‘Body Worlds’ on display in Singapore, 2003

Newscom

I’ve come to Vienna with a critical eye, to question whether some of the bodies displayed in the latest version of this traveling show (first created in 1995 but massively larger now) could include those of political and religious prisoners from China. Yet von Hagens is drawing me in. The stated purpose of his exhibitions is health education, and I am hearing a whisper of scientific justification: Is this not the mystery of life? Your curiosity is good. It absolves you. Go further. Step inside. I consent, and enter von Hagens’s freak show.

Start with the man who’s wearing nothing but boots and skis. He is performing a perfect split. His skin has been removed, revealing every sinew, every muscle. His eyes are intense, fixed on the horizon and—ready for the joke?—from the skull down, his body has been split open, sawn in half. 

Every apparently serious display in the exhibition is countered by another that smirks at you: Instead of chipmunks playing poker, it’s a lively troika of corpses in various states of corporeal undress. One is little more than a skeleton with foolishly bulging eyes. Naturally he has the winning hand—death always does—and you can imagine the giggles as they set this one up. Clearly, von Hagens wants to be seen as a wild and crazy lab-guy. 

And yet, after several rooms of bodies in sublime and macabre postures—for example, a corpse playing chess against an imaginary opponent (fill in the Bergman reference yourself)—it becomes obvious that von Hagens also desires to be appreciated as an artist. Naturally, he must challenge my bourgeois inhibitions concerning necrophilia; at the show’s exit, suspended in midair like the bodies in the medical thriller Coma, a couple engages in frozen sexual intercourse, in a pose favored by porn directors. Von Hagens has cut open the woman’s womb and peeled it back so that the full penetration—the male presumably plasticized during rigor mortis—is permanently exposed.

Now, it is a fact that there are 10-year-olds walking through this room. But that’s not my concern. What’s bugging me is that some of the bodies, the female ones in particular, have unusually short legs. And there’s something about those legs, combined with the small, refined skulls and the slight frames, that looks Chinese. 

There aren’t supposed to be any Chinese bodies in the exhibition. But here’s where the plot starts to thicken: There are actually two competing shows touring the world, von Hagens’s “Body Worlds” and “Bodies: The Exhibition” managed by Premier Exhibitions, a U.S. entertainment company. The bodies in the latter show are provided by von Hagens’s very own sorcerer’s apprentice, Professor Sui Hongjin. 

Back in Germany in the late 1980s, von Hagens dreamed of plastinating bodies, and his student Sui convinced him the process would be cheaper in China. In 1999, Von Hagens Dalian Plastination Ltd. received approval from officials in Dalian, a well-managed coastal city in Liaoning Province. In 2001, under von Hagens’s direction and Sui’s management, the factory began spitting out plastinated bodies at a good clip, with some medical institutions paying hundreds of thousands of dollars for a single specimen. Meanwhile, Sui set up his own secret plastination factory, which ultimately became Dalian Hoffen Bio-Technique, at another location. Von Hagens found out and expelled Sui from his company, and Sui took “Bodies: The Exhibition” on the road. 

In 2008, an unidentified mainland informant appeared on ABC’s 20/20 claiming that the specimens in Sui’s show were executed Chinese prisoners. The informant later retracted
the claim, adding that von Hagens had manipulated him to discredit Sui. Yet Premier Exhibitions was henceforth obliged to post a disclaimer at the entrance to its show stating: “This exhibit displays human remains of Chinese citizens or residents which were originally received by the Chinese Bureau of Police. The Chinese Bureau of Police may receive bodies from Chinese prisons. Premier cannot independently verify that the human remains you are viewing are not those of persons who were incarcerated in Chinese prisons.” 

Von Hagens himself avoided this obligation. He had closed down his Chinese operation a year before, and on 20/20 he tearfully claimed that he had unilaterally cremated all his Chinese specimens and replaced them with Caucasians who had legally donated their bodies to science. 

Perhaps; doubtless some Caucasians have short legs. But by coincidence, at the show in Vienna, the facial muscles of these short-legged figures have been systematically stripped away, so no trace of an Asiatic fold or any other odd characteristic discernible to a sharp-eyed anatomist can be seen. In one case, besides the skeleton, all that is left of the woman’s body is every intricate, spidery nerve. It’s a breathtaking sight. Imagine how long it must have taken a trained plastination expert to strip away every fiber of skin and muscle and inner organ from her corpse. Six months? Now put yourself in von Hagens’s mindset for a moment: You’ve created art from corpses; you’ve named them and posed them and loved them. Would you destroy your handiwork just because of that traitor, Sui? Maybe, maybe not. How about because of a little protest by the officially despised group of dissidents from China named Falun Gong?

Falun Gong, the Buddhist revival movement that took China by storm in the 1990s, is at the center of the new questions surrounding the plastination business—particularly Sui’s, as he has sold an estimated 1,000 Chinese plastinated bodies. Falun Gong soon fell victim to the Chinese Communist party’s paranoia. At 70 million members, it was larger than the party. Worse, it was committed to traditional (read: weak and feminine) moral values—truth, compassion, forbearance—that did not jibe with the proto-fascist goals of the New China. In 1999, the crackdown began. 

In 2006, Falun Gong accused the party of harvesting organs for transplantation from the living bodies of their coreligionists. I didn’t fully believe the charges back then. Yet after extensive investigation including over 100 interviews with Falun Gong refugees and medical personnel around the world, I’ve concluded that the allegations cannot be dismissed. 

In China, the harvesting of organs from executed prisoners is a well-established fact, and the surgical extraction of the kidneys, liver, heart, lungs, and corneas usually takes place at military hospitals under the authority of the local Public Security Bureau (PSB). Ideally, the procedure is carried out while the prisoner is in extreme physical shock (from an executioner’s bullet, for example) or highly sedated. Either way, if the prisoner is still alive until the extraction is completed, it measurably lowers the probability of rejection by the organ recipient. Some, probably a small fraction, of these organs are harvested to order on behalf of aging cadres, the remainder sold to well-off Chinese recipients or to organ tourists from Japan, Europe, and North America. Uighurs have been harvested. Quite likely Tibetans and house Christians, too, although the numbers pale before my estimate of 65,000 Falun Gong secretly put under the knife. There was nothing legal about this procedure; none of the Falun Gong victims were guilty of capital crimes, even by the murky standards of Chinese law.  

Before I had reached these conclusions, elderly Falun Gong women were patiently informing me that the bodies in von Hagens’s and Sui’s exhibitions are those of Falun Gong practitioners, hideously displayed for people’s amusement. I ignored them. Too melodramatic, I thought. But in Vienna I’m noticing that the liver and kidneys appear to be missing from some of the plastinated bodies on display. Is it conceivable that there were dual-use bodies, the organs harvested before plastination? And could those kidneys and livers still be alive inside aged Chinese and Japanese, Europeans and Americans? 

The exhibition is, for now, a mute witness, and confidential informants from China are problematic. But an unscripted incident within the Chinese Communist party just last year may shed some light on this mystery. 

B

ack at the beginning of 2012, the Chinese leadership transition was expected to go smoothly. The colorless Hu Jintao would step down in the autumn, while various factions—the so-called reformists and hardliners—would compete, quietly and efficiently, then settle unanimously on a new leader. Xi Jinping (now chairman) was a leading compromise candidate, but some Jiang Zemin loyalists—hardliners—were promoting Bo Xilai, the charismatic party secretary of Chongqing who’d created a robust populist image by smashing organized crime and party corruption.

Bo’s persona was fatally shattered by his long-term protégé, the Chongqing chief of police, Wang Lijun. On the night of February 6, 2012, Wang Lijun disguised himself as an old woman, got in a car, and drove to the American consulate in Chengdu. For approximately 30 hours, Wang spilled confidential information on his boss, asking for sanctuary, while Bo had the consulate surrounded by police cars. Ultimately the State Department surrendered Wang to the Chinese authorities. Virtually all Western media outlets reported the incident, as well as Bo Xilai’s dismissal from his post just over a month later. The standard press interpretation was that Bo Xilai’s wife had murdered a British expatriate named Neil Heywood. Unusually, the Chinese state-controlled media were given latitude to report on the murder; also unusually, the Western and Chinese press ended up with essentially the same story. Which ought to tell us something. For all its lurid qualities, the incident did not significantly threaten the party.

It took a different kind of investigator to ask the obvious: Could the murder have been a red herring—and was there actually something else, something far more damaging to the party’s image, that Wang Lijun might have revealed to the world about himself and Bo Xilai? 

After 1999, relatively few Falun Gong made it out of China—the harassment, arrests, and torture were stunning in their ferocity, even by Chinese standards. But a diverse collection of Falun Gong students, academics, and professionals found themselves marooned in Western societies, where they were free to mount public demonstrations. Some were quiet types, uneasy with Falun Gong activism, torture displays, and parades, yet inexperienced at making their case in a manner persuasive to Westerners. What they could do was find their way around overlooked corners of the Chinese web. This loose global coalition chose for itself a typically unwieldy Chinese name: the World Organization to Investigate the Persecution of Falun Gong. For years they labored in twilight, preparing detailed reports that few Westerners read. A few days after Wang Lijun’s trip to the American consulate in Chengdu, coalition investigator Lisa Lee dug up a highly unusual statement from Wang at an award ceremony in 2006: “For a veteran policeman, to see someone executed and within minutes to see the transformation in which this person’s life was extended in the bodies of several other people—it was soul-stirring.”

Liaoning Province was Bo Xilai and Wang Lijun’s original base. While Bo was rising from mayor of Dalian to provincial governor, Wang was heading the police force of Jinzhou and directing the Jinzhou City Public Security Bureau On-site Psychological Research Center. According to an official Chinese account of that same 2006 award ceremony, Wang and his center received the Guanghua Innovation Special Contribution Award for pioneering the use of a lethal injection that solved a problem plaguing organ harvesting in China for a decade: how to extract organs from living prisoners without provoking involuntary muscle contractions or damaging the kidney or liver. Wang and his agents oversaw “several thousand intensive on-site cases” of organ transplantation. 

Bo Xilai was fired on March 15, 2012. Four days later, there were strange troop movements in the night in Beijing, suggesting an unexpected intensification of the factional struggle over the party leadership. The next day the words “live harvest” and “Wang Lijun live harvest” were suddenly searchable on Baidu, China’s Google, and accounts of organ harvesting were uncensored for one night. Three days later, the medical leadership of China made a splashy public announcement that they would end organ harvesting of death row prisoners (no mention of prisoners of conscience) within three to five years. 

The Chinese leadership was responding—first in a factional maneuver on Baidu, then as a united front with the medical leadership’s announcement—to the leaked information that Wang Lijun, under Bo Xilai, had run one of the largest organ chop-shops in China. My interviews with Falun Gong labor camp refugees provided indirect confirmation: Witnesses consistently pointed to Liaoning Province—including specific locations such as Yida, Sujiatun, and Dalian—as the epicenter of Falun Gong organ harvesting from the years 2001 to 2005. Apparently Jinzhou belonged on that list, too.

T

he von Hagens factory in Dalian had a problem in 1999. As von Hagens complained at the time, the Chinese don’t donate their bodies. A plastinator could perhaps use the unclaimed corpse of the odd homeless vagrant, but Chinese autopsy regulations required that such a body be held in the morgue for as long as 30 days. Successful plastination requires the injection of formalin followed by silicone shortly after death. The spread of organ harvesting had the potential to save plastination, and beginning in 2001, four conditions favorable for both procedures were present in Liaoning Province. 

First, a supply of fresh bodies: With the massive influx of Falun Gong prisoners (I estimate approximately 500,000 to 1,000,000 practitioners were in detention in 2000 and 2001) and, as I believe, a large number of secret surgeries taking place, a plentiful supply of adult corpses between 25 and 40 years old with no external wounds was suddenly available—the exact demographic von Hagens required, as he specified in an internal communication. When Bo Xilai ascended to governor of Liaoning, he ordered a massive expansion of detention facilities of all stripes, particularly in locations such as Jinzhou, Dalian, and the now-notorious labor camp Masanjia near Shenyang. Uighurs, certain Christian house sects such as Eastern Lightning, and Tibetans may have been targeted for organ harvesting, but witnesses consistently report that Liaoning became infamous as a vast holding-pen for young “nameless” Falun Gong—those who refused to identify themselves, to avoid getting their families into trouble.

Second, international sales: With the growth of the organ harvesting industry, Liaoning developed discreet procedures for selling medical goods to organ tourists from Europe, Japan, and North America, and the province courted foreign medical investment. In 1999, Gunther von Hagens personally received an award certificate and medal from Bo Xilai at the Xinghai Friendship Award ceremony; later, according to Sui Hongjin, von Hagens bragged about his close connection to Bo.

Third, a sympathetic provincial Public Security Bureau: An investigator from the World Coalition to Investigate the Persecution of Falun Gong telephoned Sui Hongjin, who acknowledged that most of the bodies he was plastinating came directly from the Dalian PSB. Wang Lijun was the head of the Jinzhou PSB and—hitched to Bo’s rising star—had clout far beyond that position. Other officials in the Liaoning Province PSB seem to have been fully aligned with the same clique that Bo Xilai represented: Jiang Zemin loyalists who were building their careers on one part discretion, two parts persecution. The anti-Falun Gong campaign was in full swing. Those who wanted to get ahead had to show how tough they were. No province had better performance reviews. 

Fourth, synergy: Harvesting centers like Wang Lijun’s required a stable of prisoners (to get tissue matches with wealthy foreigners), and so did the plastination factories (to meet the demands of medical schools and an ambitious global exhibition). Yet Wang Lijun and others like him were not necessarily competing for bodies with von Hagens and Sui—judging by the Vienna display, they could have been sharing. Der Spiegel reported an intercepted email from Sui to von Hagens at the end of 2001: “This morning, two fresh, top quality corpses arrived at the factory. The livers were removed only a few hours ago.” One obvious reading of that statement is that the bodies had been harvested at another location just before they arrived for plastination. Given the extraordinary profit to be derived from harvesting followed by plastination—up to $400,000 a corpse—there was little reason not to extract organs in Jinzhou and then make the four-hour drive to Dalian. As long as a cadaver arrived within 24-48 hours of death, it could be plastinated.

Or were the corpses of prisoners of conscience used exclusively for organ harvesting? Can we know for sure? Perhaps not. It is certainly possible that von Hagens is telling the truth when he insists he burned all his plastinated Chinese bodies and that Sui, though he received corpses from the PSB, has good reasons for his apparent confidence that they included no prisoners of conscience. But if the question deserves an answer, there is actually a long-shot way of finding one: Test the DNA. 

According to medical specialists I’ve consulted, mitochondrial DNA can be extracted from fixed anatomical specimens and used to prove relationships out to third- degree relatives. In other words, one could give the organ-ization Doctors Against Forced Organ Harvesting or some other responsible entity DNA samples from both shows, test the samples from von Hagens’s figures to see if all the bodies are Caucasian, then attempt to match the DNA from any that turn out to be Chinese, as well as DNA from Sui’s displays, against DNA from Chinese families who lost a loved one through an “enforced disappearance”—a PSB arrest for religious or political beliefs—during the years of high plastination. 

Could matches be found? Initially, it would be harder than finding a needle in a haystack—although Minghui, a Falun Gong samizdat publication widely distributed in China on the web, has a formidable list of Falun Gong members missing from Liaoning Province alone. The families could be contacted. If enough families became aware of this effort and provided samples—a little saliva is best—then the chances would increase dramatically. It’s important to recognize that these families are the constituency to be served—not the Transplant Society, not the World Health Organization, not even Doctors Against Forced Organ Harvesting.

Conceivably there could be a role for institutions. European parliament vice president Edward McMillan-Scott has suggested an Impunity Index—a central database where dissidents could record exactly who ratted on them, who sentenced them, who tortured them, so that when reform or revolution came, justice might at least be possible. It’s an idea with possibilities as well as pitfalls. 

But for now, DNA testing would require cooperation. Perhaps von Hagens would agree, happy to clear his name of any lingering doubts. If he realized that DNA samples could be taken from his figures without damaging them—any more than a van Gogh is damaged when a tiny sample of paint is taken to prove its authenticity—he might cooperate. And assuming he were exonerated, Dr. Death could rightfully jeer my dark fantasies at the museum, and I would very gladly laugh along with him.

Dr. Sui’s case is a little different. Given the money his operation generates and the old adage that every criminal makes one mistake—shipping murder victims loaded with DNA to doctors and medical schools across the free world just might prove to have been a mistake—“Bodies: The Exhibition” and Premier Exhibitions could ultimately be considered accessories to a crime against humanity. By cooperating, perhaps they might mitigate their involvement in the eyes of the world and, most important, in the eyes of the Chinese people. 

But let us be realistic about the Chinese, too. They have been through a lot. What’s more, the most advanced Chinese laboratories may be growing livers within 10 to 15 years. So for them, the sourcing of organs for transplant is hardly the burning ethical quandary of the age. Nor is it, after all, for us. Rather, the cause for concern here is the same old ethical quandary as ever: not the inevitability of death, as Gunther von Hagens would have it, but the inevitability of humans’ descent into mass murder. 

Ethan Gutmann is the author of Losing the New China and The Slaughter (forthcoming, 2014). He wishes to thank Leeshai Lemish and Maria A. Fiatarone Singh for research assistance. 

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