Europe’s 20th century experience of genocide and the failure of political will to stop it still resonates today on the continent, with a hearing in the European Parliament recently reflecting on a particular 21st century barbarism: communist China’s massacre of prisoners of conscience for their transplant organs.
“This is morally devastating,” said Member of the European Parliament Tunne Kelam after hearing a number of panelists discuss the topic. “If we don’t take knowledge seriously about this practice, we have become morally and politically co-responsible.”
The Jan. 29 hearing at the European Parliament was hosted by Edward McMillan-Scott, a vice president of the Parliament and a stalwart supporter of human rights in China. It featured eight speakers discussing various aspects of human rights abuse in the communist country.
Some of the most dramatic testimony came from Dr. Enver Tohti, a Uyghur surgeon who in the 1990s personally participated in the organ harvesting of Uyghur prisoners—before those techniques were carried over to the burgeoning Falun Gong prisoner population in 1999 and 2000. Tohti has been interviewed on the topic before, but his appearance on this panel was his first public testimony.
In 1995 he had, “under his supervisor’s watchful eye … performed a live surgical extraction of the man’s liver and kidneys,” according to an account by investigative journalist Ethan Gutmann published last year.
Gutmann was also in attendance at the panel. He provided a median estimate of 65,000 Falun Gong practitioners having been killed so that their organs could be removed and sold, since 1999. The actual number could be much higher.
Falun Gong is a popular Chinese spiritual practice that the communist regime began persecuting in 1999, after the number of adherents surpassed members of the Party.
Those in government in major Western countries appear to find disquieting the idea of confronting a communist regime growing daily in international clout, according to Gutmann and other speakers on Jan. 29.
In light of such abuses, Kelam accused the international community, broadly speaking, of deliberately putting its head in the sand on the People’s Republic of China question. “Nowadays, when we can’t hide information, we can’t just pretend that we didn’t get information, we do have enough information to draw a conclusion,” he said.
The failure to act comes from lack of courage, he said. Kelam drew a comparison between the general approach to China in vogue now, of attempting to deal with human rights abuses quietly, and former British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s weakness in facing a rising Hitler.
Kelam framed the issue in terms of each individual’s moral responsibility: “I am not a statistical unit, I am a unique personality and I can make my choice, even if this is risky, but it is to save your soul, to save your integrity, to establish your position as a responsible citizen.”
Man-Yan Ng, a member of the board of the International Society for Human Rights (ISHR), said that much of the difficulty in dealing with organ harvesting in China is that it is a state-run program. “In other countries, in African countries, or other places, you have also organ harvesting, but it is run by ‘gangsters,’ so you can investigate. But in China it’s run by the state.”
Two chief researchers of organ harvesting in China, the Canadians David Kilgour, a former member of Parliament, and David Matas, a human rights lawyer, were denied visas to carry out their investigation in China. “A criminal will never admit that they are the criminal,” Ng said. “So in this case the criminal is the state and that differentiates organ harvesting in China from all other countries. That is why it’s so serious.”
Another member of the European Parliament, Leonidas Donskis, presented a talk called: China’s alternative version of modernity as a threat to human rights.
He said that after the evidence of organ harvesting came out in 2006, “It was an eye-opening experience, and people understood that there was something devilish, something absolutely nightmarish, happening in China.”
Nearly seven years on, despite the slow progress, he felt things had moved forward: “Look, some time ago I would not have imagined such a conference, fully represented by Ministers of the European Parliament,” he said. “We have so many Chinese dissidents here: we have Chinese medical doctors, we have Chinese lawyers, Chinese scholars. They speak up, they participate, and this is very important. They are the real hope.”