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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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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. 

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