China is the world leader in organ transplants, but where do the hearts, livers and kidneys come from? Peter Popham reports on a beauty queen seeking to expose the horrifying truth
Anastasia Lin is a Canadian beauty queen and a gifted actress, but it’s unlikely that the new film in which she stars, The Bleeding Edge, will be coming to a multiplex near you any time soon.
A gripping thriller set in China, it tells the shocking story of how a young Chinese wife and mother, played by Lin, is dragged from her home, tortured in a secret jail and finally targeted for her vital organs. China’s secret trade – the forced removal of kidneys, livers and hearts from tens of thousands of political detainees, leading to their inevitable and speedy death – has never been filmed like this before. And if China has any say in the matter, screenings will be few and far between. Because the film rips the covers off China’s dirtiest secret.
China is far and away the most prolific country in the world for organ transplants. Years ago it outstripped the former world leader, the United States. There are 712 transplant clinics around the country, many of which have seen massive growth over the past three years. Western experts believe that up to 100,000 transplant operations take place per year. But where do the donors come from?
The Western solution to the problem of supply is of course the pledging of organs at death by volunteers. But there is deep-seated cultural resistance to this in Chinese tradition, which dictates that bodies should be buried or cremated intact. Donor volunteer centres have been set up in China in the past five years, but they do little business. Ethan Gutmann, a leading researcher into the organ transplant trade in China, said, ‘We had researchers calling those places every day, trying to volunteer their organs. One place said they had 20 volunteers, one said three, one said you’re our first customer … This is China, there are millions of people in these cities. Nobody’s doing it, nobody’s volunteering.’
In the early years of organ transplants in China, all the organs came from Death Row prisoners after execution. But this practice provoked widespread outrage and revulsion outside the country, and last year it was announced that it had been banned. Yet even though voluntary donors are so thin on the ground, the transplant programme steams ahead, with tens of thousands of operations performed every year. Where are these kidneys, livers, hearts and corneas coming from?
The answer is as simple as it is appalling. Researchers who have focused their attention on this issue for many years are in no doubt that the great majority of organs are taken from political prisoners who have been illegally detained: who have been neither charged nor convicted of any crime, who are often held incommunicado without the knowledge of their families, and who die likewise without any information emerging about their passing, buried in unmarked graves, forgotten to the world.
This practice, like that of taking organs from executed convicts, is not new: a handful of doctors who have witnessed and even participated in these secret operations have given vivid, harrowing testimony about them. In the early days, the principal victims were Uighurs, the largely Muslim inhabitants of Xinjiang in China’s north west, thousands of whom were detained in crackdowns on dissidents in the province. Many more were Tibetans. Some are so-called ‘House Christians’, who practice their religion underground, away from the eyes of the Communist authorities.
But the great majority are practitioners of Falun Gong, the neo-Buddhist group which sprang up in the 1990s and quickly gained extraordinary popularity. By the end of that decade the group – its slogan is ‘truthfulness, compassion, forbearance’ – is thought to have acquired 70 million followers across the country, slightly more than the Communist Party. And not only were
the numbers huge, it had members throughout the party, even in the ruling Politburo: one source claimed that six out of seven senior Politburo members had close relatives who followed the teachings of Li Hongzhi, Falun Gong’s leader.
In the West, Falun Gong is sometimes described as a cult, but it does not fit neatly into that or any other Western category. Avowedly unpolitical, it is a mix of Buddhist and Taoist ideas with a programme of traditional slow-moving physical exercises. Yet from the point of view of the Communist Party its rapid growth and vast size, its ideological hold on the loyalties of senior communists and its rejection of communism’s materialist beliefs, made it a severe counter-revolutionary threat. And in July 1999, the party leadership launched a fierce campaign to eliminate it.
Soon hundreds of thousands of practitioners were rounded up and incarcerated without trial or charge in hundreds of forced labour camps, where they amounted to about half of the total detained population. It is estimated that between half a million and one million of them were detained in these camps at any one time.
There was no official record of their detention; and as many refused to give their names, to protect their families, they had effectively vanished. And indeed that was the intention of the authorities. In August 2000 – a year after the crackdown began – the Ministry of Public Security relayed orders around the country demanding that the practice of Falun Gong be eradicated within three months. What this meant was spelled out in 2003. Local party offices were informed that ‘no law regulates the treatment of Falun Gong practitioners’, and ‘death of Falun Gong practitioners from beating is nothing and shall be counted as suicide; the body shall be directly cremated without investigating the person’s identification.’
The local authorities, in other words, had carte blanche to do whatever they felt necessary to wipe out this threat to the Communist Party’s monopoly of power. And that command came as a great boon to China’s organ transplant industry.
The use of the organs of convicted criminals was already under attack from the West on ethical grounds, because there was no way of knowing whether they had truly volunteered their organs or not. As Dr Shao Jiang, a Tiananmen Square survivor who now lives in England, commented, ‘When you’re in jail, sentenced to death, the government official says, do you want to volunteer your organs? You think it may be better for your family, or you can get a good meal before you die … It is quite hard to judge who is a real volunteer.’ Additionally, up to half of those on Death Row suffered from hepatitis, which made their organs useless for medicine; many others were drug addicts or alcoholics or suffering from chronic illnesses. Most of their organs were good for nothing.
But the hundreds of thousands of Falun Gong practitioners now being herded into labour camps were a different matter. In obedience to the movement’s dictates, they neither smoked nor drank nor took drugs, and they were sexually continent. So their organs were ideal for recycling. Furthermore there was no record of their arrest, no public knowledge of their whereabouts, no limits on their confinement – and the Communist Party’s central office had said in so many words, ‘no law regulates the treatment of Falun Gong practitioners’. Thus began China’s hidden holocaust. nowledge of the mass murder of Falun Gong practitioners for their organs is not new. Dedicated researchers have been gleaning every scrap of evidence they could find about it for more than 10 years, and it now amounts to a formidable weight of testimony. But imagine the difficulty of establishing facts about the Nazi Holocaust had Hitler retained his grip on power.
Even without the long shadow of the International Criminal Court in The Hague, no ruler, however monstrous, cares to be depicted as a mass murderer. The same goes for all their underlings, the thousands implicated in the process. Everyone has excellent reason to keep what is happening under wraps. And the nature of the crime – involving extra-legal detention, secret incarceration in camps which are impenetrable to the outside world, and the disposal of corpses without ceremony – makes physical proof fiendishly difficult to obtain.
In its place there is a growing mountain of evidence, including the testimony of doctors sickened by their experience of slicing organs from innocent people who were still alive at the time (which allows them to be removed in optimum condition). Yet China’s financial and political muscle means that until now the international community has totally failed to hold China to account. The monstrous crime continues unpunished.
Can a beauty queen make a difference to that? Anastasia Lin, who moved from China to Canada with her mother when she was 13, certainly hopes so. ‘I’m really trying to raise awareness about this issue,’ she says. ‘People are more receptive to beauty queens and celebrities than public figures.’ When she competes for the Miss World crown in Washington DC in December, she plans to bring her campaign to the contest’s huge international audience.
A Falun Gong practitioner herself, she has already discovered some of the costs involved in standing up to the Chinese Big Brother. ‘I’ve thrown away my movie career, thrown away my family’s safety, and even my family relations have suffered because I want to achieve something,’ she says. ‘My career is no longer my goal. I want to do everything I can to stop this – to stop them from killing people.’
Peter Popham, who became an author and journalist while living in Japan in the 1980s, covered many China stories during his 26 years with The Independent, most recently Hong Kong’s ‘Umbrella Revolution’ in 2014