Recent promises by medical leaders in China that the country will wean itself off organs transplanted from executed prisoners are being given a critical eye by researchers and a medical advocacy group.
At the beginning of November a senior Chinese medical official told the Bulletin, the flagship publication of the World Health Organization, that China would be phasing out reliance on death row prisoners for organ transplants early next year.
The remarks were greeted with some degree of fanfare in the press, but they deserve much more critical attention, according to Doctors Against Forced Organ Harvesting (DAFOH), a medical advocacy group based in Washington.
“DAFOH is concerned that the announced changes are primarily aimed at appeasing the international community, while the unethical organ transplant abuses will continue in secret,” the group said in a press release sent on the evening of Nov. 5.
A large portion of the organ-harvesting activity known to have taken place in China was conducted secretly, by security forces and military-medical apparatus. Tens of thousands, and possibly more, of such transplants have been carried out since the 1990s, targeting prisoners of conscience.
According to researchers, in the 1990s Uyghurs were killed first for their organs, and then in 2000, one year after the beginning of the persecution of Falun Gong, Falun Gong practitioners in detention were targeted. Over 60,000 adherents are thought to have been harvested, effectively being executed in the process of having organs removed.
Given that there has been no public acknowledgement or reparations for these abusive transplantation practices, researchers question the foundation of a purportedly new, clean system.
Voluntary Donation and Reporting
Wang Haibo, the director of the China Organ Transplant Response System Research Center of the Ministry of Health, told the Bulletin, “It’s time for China to move on and develop an ethical and sustainable organ donation system.”
He said that using death row prisoners for organs is “not ethical or sustainable,” and that there is a consensus among transplant professionals in China to end the practice.
The Red Cross Society of China, a government-affiliated organization, has been appointed by the Ministry of Health to establish and operate the organ donation system.
The Center of Study for Liver Disease at Queen Mary Hospital, University of Hong Kong, has been designated to manage the China Liver Transplant Registry, which is supposed to record all liver transplants in China.
No hard deadline was given for when executed prisoners will stop being used for their organs, and Wang does not explain how it will be confirmed that the practice of harvesting prisoners for their organs has ceased.
Questions of Transparency
The Liver Registry in Hong Kong is not being run in a transparent fashion, according to David Matas, the co-author of a 2009 book examining how Falun Gong practitioners are targeted for organ harvesting.
In 2009 Matas was able to access data from the registry, and referred to it in his research to indicate trends in kidney transplants carried out in China. By 2010 that public access to the information had been withdrawn, and remains so now.
Matas said in a telephone interview that when he asked Wang about the rationale for this increased secrecy, in a public question at The Transplant Society’s August 2010 International Congress in Vancouver, Wang said that he did not want the data used in ways he disapproved of by individuals like Matas. “That’s the antithesis of free access to information,” Matas said.
A call to Wang’s office rang unanswered on the morning of Nov. 7.
According to a schematic on the website, the reporting process is initiated by transplant centers across China. It is unclear whether this voluntary entry process would capture illicit organ transplant operations, or how the activities of the military-medical industry in China would be deterred by the Ministry of Health’s initiative. The Ministry of Health has no authority over military hospitals in China.
For years the security services and military hospitals have harvested organs from political prisoners, mostly Falun Gong practitioners, while the regime has attacked critics who sought to expose the practices.
Much of the media coverage about the new initiative steered clear of this background.
‘Leapfrog’ or Cover-Up?
In the Bulletin interview, Wang said, “I am optimistic that China can leapfrog to success in a relatively short period of time given the combination of governmental support and international experience.”
It is taking place over a mass grave of 65,000 people.
— Ethan Gutmann, researcher
Ethan Gutmann, an investigative journalist who has since 2006 conducted research on the involvement of China’s security services in the organ trade, thought the idea that China could leap past what has taken place a grim prospect.
“Mr. Wang wants us to accept that China can ‘leapfrog’ into an ethical transplant system purely through bureaucratic will, as if Chinese organ harvesting could be written off as a vestigial case of Chinese underdevelopment and nagging feudalism,” Gutmann wrote in an emailed response.
He continued: “The blame for the covert medical slaughter of tens of thousands of religious and political dissidents—Falun Gong, Uyghurs, Tibetans, Christians—cannot be laid on the Chinese people, or even the medical system. The blame lies with the Chinese Communist Party itself.”
Gutmann’s research found that Uyghurs, Tibetans, and Falun Gong practitioners have all been targeted for organ harvesting carried out by the military-medical complex working with the security services.
“It is not a medical reform at all. It is a cover-up, a brazen attempt to change the subject, an attempt to buy time to bury a crime against humanity, to let the grass do its work,” Gutmann wrote.
“The ‘leapfrog’ that Wang refers to? It is taking place over a mass grave of 65,000 people. And the Party is performing this sickening maneuver in plain sight of the entire world.”
Editor’s Note: When Chongqing’s former top cop, Wang Lijun, fled for his life to the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu on Feb. 6, he set in motion a political storm that has not subsided. The battle behind the scenes turns on what stance officials take toward the persecution of Falun Gong. The faction with bloody hands—the officials former CCP head Jiang Zemin promoted in order to carry out the persecution—is seeking to avoid accountability for their crimes and to continue the campaign. Other officials are refusing any longer to participate in the persecution. Events present a clear choice to the officials and citizens of China, as well as people around the world: either support or oppose the persecution of Falun Gong. History will record the choice each person makes.
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