Usually the litany of human rights abuses in China might be thought of as a tangled and barbed skein. But David Matas, a distinguished human rights lawyer based in Winnipeg, Canada, sees them more as a quilt: ready to be unraveled by the pull of a single thread.
The thread on which he would pull would be the persecution of Falun Gong—or, specifically, the killing of Falun Gong practitioners for their organs—he told a forum at the New York University School of Law on April 6.
The killing has been inflicted since 2001, and the organs are sold to patients who need transplants, he said. Titled Bloody Harvest, his report on the topic, co-written with fellow Canadian and former parliamentarian David Kilgour, came out in 2006. It was updated in 2007 and published in book form in 2009.
“The topic needed investigating, so we investigated it,” he said.
Falun Gong is a set of spiritual teachings and five exercises. It has been persecuted in China since 1999. The organ harvesting began soon after, according to the report, which casts a vast evidentiary net. Included are examinations of statistical discrepancies, telephone admissions, online advertisements for organs with ultra-short waiting times, and the clumsy boastings of Chinese doctors on several occasions.
After the report came out, Matas and Kilgour went from researchers to advocates, traveling to 40 countries and meeting with NGOs, government officials, journalists, academics, and surgeons, speaking “whenever we could, with whomever we could, to stop the abuse,” he said.
The advocacy seems to have paid off, given his invitation to speak at the prestigious NYU Law School, and alongside a kingmaker in the field of Chinese legal practices, professor Jerome Cohen. Professor Cohen has had a formative influence on the study of Chinese law in the West. The 80-year-old professor continues to teach after 50 years on the job.
Professor Cohen said that China’s several decades of modernization since the crackdown on students in 1989 have led to a point where part of a new generation is arguing for the rights that the country’s communist leaders say they are entitled to.
He announced at the forum that the “defining moment” for human rights in China may have come recently, with the sudden kidnapping of famous avant-garde political artist Ai Weiwei at the Beijing airport. Cohen has known Ai for 25 years. For more than that long he has resisted claiming the advent of a “defining moment”—but after Ai’s capture, “I really did come to the thought that this may be a defining moment with respect to China and human rights,” he said.
Western media and governments roundly criticized the Chinese regime after Ai’s kidnapping. The regime gave a rejoinder, a pugnacious editorial in the Global Times—one of the Communist Party’s mouthpieces to the English-speaking world—rebuking the West for manifesting any interest in Ai’s case.
But for Matas it is precisely on the Chinese Communist Party’s hypersensitive human rights pressure points that efforts must be made. And there is no topic more hypersensitive and nonnegotiable than the persecution of Falun Gong, Matas told the assembly.
“This wasn’t just our choice. There is at least one other human rights advocate, Gao Zhisheng, who made the same choice,” he said, referring to one of the most hallowed names in the Chinese dissident community. “Like Kilgour and I, [Gao realized] if you want to really get at the problem of human rights in China, go after the victimization of Falun Gong.”
He added, “It’s an entry into a wide array of human rights abuses in China,” including religious persecution, educational discrimination, the reeducation through forced labor system, torture in custody, the forced organ harvesting system, arbitrary detention, and much more, he said, because the persecution of that particular group uses all those means.
The response from the Chinese Party-state is “silly,” “vicious,” “propaganda,” and “nonsense” when Falun Gong is brought up, Matas said. But by banging on this most acute of issues—what the moderator of the panel professor Samuel Estreicher called a “pure human rights abuse” since it sets the enormous coercive power of the Chinese communist apparatus against a peaceful group of spiritual believers—advocates can achieve real victories in preserving life on the ground.
Matas concluded the forum, which had run into overtime, by reading the final passages from his book about organ harvesting from Falun Gong practitioners:
“The Chinese leadership today treats the Falun Gong as their worst enemy, imprisoning and torturing them more than any other group, killing only them and prisoners sentenced to death for their organs. At some point, they will realize that the Falun Gong are their best friends, an authentic Chinese belief system that is capable of keeping China united, that is capable of keeping China—to use the catchword of the muddled ideology of current Chinese President Hu Jintao—harmonious.”