Chinese government officials have acknowledged since July 2005 that up to 95 percent of the organs transplanted in China were harvested from convicted, executed prisoners — allegedly with their consent.
Yet in 2006, Canadian human rights activists reported that there weren't enough executed prisoners or other donors to account for 41,500 transplants performed in China between 2000 and 2005. The report's authors, human rights lawyer David Matas and former Canadian Parliament member David Kilgour, concluded that, rather than coming from executed criminals, most of the organs came from imprisoned practitioners of the Buddhist spiritual discipline known as Falun Gong, who were either shot first or died during the organ harvesting operation.
Since the government banned the practice of Falun Gong and declared it subversive in 1999, hundreds of thousands of practitioners have been arrested, and those who refused to recant disappeared into slave labor camps, according to Matas and Kilgour. The Laogai Research Foundation, a Washington-based advocacy group that exposes human rights violations in China, estimated that in 2008 between 500,000 and 2 million Falun Gong were being detained. At least 62,000 were victims of organ harvesting operations from 2000–2008, according to Matas and Kilgour and Ethan Gutmann, an investigative journalist.
Matas and Kilgour, who were nominated for a Nobel Prize for their investigation, say the organs were then “sold” to foreign transplant tourists. Conducted mainly at military hospitals with access to prisoners, the transplants funneled $1 billion a year to the hospitals, which had lost most of their subsidies from the Communist government, according to Matas.
The activists' undercover reports include taped conversations with transplant doctors at Chinese hospitals promising foreign callers that they could receive a transplant in as little as a week — a process that usually takes months to years in most countries. “They're clearly blood-typing and tissue-typing prisoners” — to match them to prospective recipients — “and then shooting them,” says Arthur Caplan, a professor of bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania.
In 2008, advocacy groups and media reports charged that some of bodies and organs on display in the popular “Bodies” exhibit that traveled to several major American cities were those of executed Chinese prisoners. After Andrew M. Cuomo, then-attorney general of New York, investigated the allegations, the exhibitor admitted that it had received the bodies from the Chinese Bureau of Police and that, despite its prior denials, it could not verify that the human remains used in its exhibits had not come from executed Chinese prisoners. On May 29, 2008, Cuomo announced a settlement with Premier Exhibitions. The company agreed henceforth to obtain documentation demonstrating the cause of death of its bodies and disclose on its website that it could not confirm whether currently displayed bodies had come from executed prisoners. It also said it would refund ticket prices to prior visitors who requested it.
Perhaps in response to allegations of “execution on demand” policies and to allay negative publicity during the 2008 Olympic Games, the Chinese government in 2007 banned the harvesting of organs from living donors without their consent and outlawed the sale of organs. Many websites advertising cheap transplants at Chinese hospitals suddenly disappeared. The government also ordered that Chinese patients waiting for organs be given priority over transplant tourists, and it limited donors to close relatives.
John Fung, a Chinese-American transplant surgeon at the Cleveland Clinic who frequently visits Chinese hospitals as a visiting professor, says since China's 2007 clampdown he no longer sees Saudi and Israeli patients in transplant wards. “I haven't seen a Caucasian in five years,” he says.
The number of organ transplants did dip in 2007, and some observers wondered if harvesting of prisoners' organs was becoming a thing of the past. But since 2008, Matas maintains, overall transplants have returned to historic highs. Amnesty International estimates that changes in Chinese law have cut in half the number of criminal prisoners executed. But that just means even more of the approximately 10,000 annual transplants in China are coming from Falun Gong who have refused to recant their beliefs, Matas says. He estimates that the number of transplants harvested from Falun Gong members has risen from about 7,500 a year before 2007 to about 8,500 today.
Matas acknowledges that “there's a real downturn in transplant tourism in China. There used to be charters going from Taiwan to China organized by brokers, but the Chinese [government] stopped them. There were whole wings of hospitals in northern China that had nothing but Koreans in them.”
But the government crackdown and the scarcity of organs also have spawned an undercover black market, according to recent news reports. Each year, China has more than a million people waiting for replacement organs, but only 1 percent receive a transplant. A voluntary donation program started by the government in 2009 has led to only 67 transplants in a country with cultural traditions that oppose organ donation.
Activists in Australia protest the reported practice in China of killing members of the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement, detained in labor camps, and harvesting their organs to sell to foreign transplant tourists. Websites advertising “transplant packages” disappeared after a government crackdown, but advocacy groups say prisoners still are being killed for their organs. (AFP/Getty Images/Greg Wood)
Some Chinese-language websites still advertise illegal packages aimed at Chinese patients, including accommodations, meals and a kidney transplant. In a highly publicized case reported this year, a 26-year-old welder, who changed his mind after agreeing to sell his kidney for $6,000, had his kidney forcibly removed at a grungy local hospital in Shanxi province. The brokers' henchmen forced Hu Jie into the hospital where the recipient was waiting, and Hu Jie later woke up to find his kidney gone and $2,000 less in his bank account than the broker had promised, he said.
Despite recent public declarations from the health minister that the government intends to stop harvesting organs from prisoners over the next five years, it's not clear that anything has changed yet, experts say. “It's an attempt to answer criticism through a charm offensive, removing websites [advertising kidney transplants] as evidence for what they're doing [without] actually improving the situation,” says Matas.
Gutmann, an American investigative journalist whose estimates of the number of Falun Gong harvesting victims echoes those of Matas, says it's hard to say what is happening now. He doesn't trust Chinese government statistics. “Frankly, I don't know if harvesting of Falun Gong stopped, stopped and then started again, or never stopped at all,” says Gutmann, an adjunct fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a think tank in Washington. “My interviews with recent refugees yield only fragmented clues, and the Chinese health authorities are certainly acting as if they want to put the issue to bed.”
It's also unclear whether transplant tourism is still thriving in China. “For the past six months to a year it looks like it's picking up again,” says Damon Noto, spokesman for Doctors Against Forced Organ Harvesting, an international group campaigning against forced organ harvesting in China. For military hospitals, where the bulk of transplants are done, Noto says, “their biggest source of income is organ transplant.”
Caplan concurs that transplant tourism is a big money-maker for China and other countries. “You've spent a lot of money to be prestigious by doing transplants, and you need kidneys and livers to transplant, but the only way you're going to get them is through living donor purchase,” he says, or from prisoners in China's case. “So the government condemns it but looks the other way.”
— Sarah Glazer