Killing for Profit: Prisoners of Conscience Feed China’s Vast Organ Transplant Industry

By Dorothy Li
Dorothy Li
Dorothy Li
Dorothy Li is a reporter for The Epoch Times based in Europe.
December 8, 2022Updated: December 14, 2022

Four soldiers carried a wounded young man from prison at night. White-clad doctors in a military van waiting nearby then work to work: one used a scalpel to open the entire abdominal cavity, while others quickly took out two kidneys and put them in a container. After gouging the two eyeballs out, the corpse was thrown into a black body bag.

That macabre scene occurred in the northern port city of Dalian about 30 years ago. It was a “secret military order” George Zheng (an alias) received when he was an intern at a military hospital there at that time.

“When I cut [the veins and arteries], blood immediately spurted out. There was blood spurting from all over his hands and body. This blood was flowing, verifying without a doubt that this man was alive,” Zheng recounted in a 2015 interview with The Epoch Times in Toronto, Canada, using a pseudonym to protect his identity.

Zheng said he didn’t know what the order was before being asked to hold the body. The horrific scene offered him a glimpse of the sprawling system of live organ harvesting orchestrated by the communist regime, involving military and its affiliated hospitals. Zheng said he left the hospital soon after.

Epoch Times Photo
‘Organ Crimes.’ Oil painting depicting the seizure of organs from a living Falun Gong practitioner in China. Xiqiang Dong is the artist. (Image courtesy of Xiqiang Dong.)

Zheng’s account aligned with others who had participated or witnessed the regime’s opaque practice of forcefully procuring organs from living prisoners—including those detained simply for their spiritual belief—and using them to supply the country’s transplant industry.

The incident described by Zheng occurred in the 1990s. Since then, the dark practice has been industrialized to staggering proportions, according to extensive research and evidence that has emerged over the past decade-and-a-half. This occurred as a result of the Chinese Communist Party’s persecution of Falun Gong from 1999, which led to an exponential increase in the country’s captive population, who in effect became a large organ bank of the living.

In 2019, an independent people’s tribunal concluded that forced organ harvesting has taken place in China for years “on a significant scale,” and that killing to supply the transplant industry continues to this day. The main victims, the tribunal said, were detained Falun Gong practitioners.

‘Crime Against Humanity’

The horrific abuse first came to light in 2006 when a Chinese military doctor, a journalist, and another informant approached The Epoch Times. Among them was a woman using the alias Annie, a former worker at a hospital in northern China. She revealed how her ex-husband, a neurosurgeon at the same hospital, participated in the forcible removal of corneas from about 2,000 imprisoned Falun Gong practitioners from 2001 to 2003. They were all still breathing at the time of extraction.

“This whole scheme and the trading of organs was organized by the government health system. The doctors’ responsibility was simply to do what they were told to do,” Annie said in a 2006 interview with The Epoch Times.

annie
Whistleblower Annie at a press conference in Washington, D.C., on April 20, 2006. It was her first public testimony about large scale organ harvesting atrocities in China. (The Epoch Times)

Her account was what led to the joint investigation by David Kilgour, former Canadian cabinet minister, and David Matas, a Canadian human rights lawyer. With no response to their request to visit China, the two David investigated Chinese hospitals by examining their websites, media reports, and undercover phone calls with doctors in 15 provinces. In July 2006, they released the first edition of their report titled “Bloody Harvest,” concluding that forced organ harvesting was indeed happening.

“They are crimes against humanity. They are crimes against us all,” the two wrote in the updated version of the book. With new evidence, an updated report was published in 2007.

Meanwhile, Ethan Gutmann, a veteran China analyst in the United States, who was at first skeptical about the allegations, started his own investigation into the matter. After seven years of research, Gutmann came to a similar conclusion in his 2014 book, “The Slaughter.”

“The leadership was aware of it and it was state sponsored—ultimately the state allowed it to happen and encouraged it to happen,” said Gutmann in a 2014 interview with The Epoch Times.

On-Demand System

A sudden and mysterious boom in China’s transplant industry started in the early 2000s. Despite the lack of an official organ donation system, organ transplantation rates shot up; hundreds of new national transplant centers opened; and a flush of websites offered a wait time of as short as weeks for the transplant of a vital organ—something unheard of in countries relying on voluntary donation systems.

Epoch Times Photo
Illustration indicating the prices charged for organs in China’s illicit transplant industry. (The Epoch Times)

Extremely Short Wait Times

The shorter wait times attracted patients from all over the world, who traveled to China for life-saving operations. Among them was Mordechai Shtiglits. In November 2005, he embarked on a journey to Shanghai after spending a year and a half at the Sheba Medical Center in Israel waiting for a new heart.

It only took a few days for Chinese doctors to find a suitable heart. One week after his arrival in Shanghai, Shtiglits was told that the next day he could get his new heart, according to a 2013 investigative report in the German newspaper Die Zeit.

A Chinese surgeon suggested the heart came from a 22-year-old “donor,” who died in a traffic accident. But the report stated such a situation is “extremely unlikely.” While more than 60,000 people die in road traffic incidents in China per year, it said, Chinese doctors wouldn’t be able to know in advance that anyone would die in an accident. Moreover, the country didn’t have a system for rapid organ allocation at the time.

Jacob Lavee
Dr. Jacob Lavee after a medical conference in Poiana Brasov, Romania, on Oct. 20, 2017.
(Mihut Savu/Epoch Times)

Dr. Jacob Lavee had treated Shtiglits for years. He described his patient’s experience as the first time he became aware of forced organ harvesting in China. Lavee recounted the scene when the seriously-ill patient announced he would have a heart transplant operation in China in two weeks.

“I looked at him and I asked: ‘Do you listen to yourself? How can they schedule a heart transplant ahead of time two weeks?” Lavee said in the 2015 documentary “Hard to Believe.”

Lavee had been aware of Israeli patients traveling to China for kidney transplants. He thought that it was procured from poor villagers. That was itself an unethical practice, but it was entirely different from heart donation—one can survive from the removal of a single kidney, but extracting a heart kills the person.

But the Israeli patient was not an isolated incident. Chinese websites had publicly promoted ultra-short waiting for organ transplants, often within weeks. For example, investigators highlighted the Shanghai-based Changzheng Hospital said on its website, “the average waiting time for a liver supply is one week among all the patients.”

Abundant Organ Supply

Besides short waiting times, Chinese hospital websites even publicly promised that if the initial organ transplant failed, they could continue to find suitable organs until it was successful.

According to the book Bloody Harvest, the China International Transplantation Assistant Centre website stated: “It may take only one week to find out the suitable [kidney] donor, the maximum time being one month … If something wrong with the donor’s organ happens, the patient will have the option to be offered another organ donor and have the operation again in one week.”

Investigators later confirmed that some patients indeed receive multiple organs, with some getting third or fourth organs. For example, a man from Asia went twice to Shanghai between 2003 to 2004. The first time, a Chinese doctor brought him four sets of kidneys in two weeks, but none of the four were compatible. A few months later, when he came back to China, he was presented with four more sets of kidneys until the eighth one matched.

“When we saw him, he was doing fine. But eight human beings had been killed,” Kilgour said in the documentary “Medical Genocide,” referring to the patient.

The-Tianjin-First-Central-Hospital-Google-Drive
The Tianjin First Central Hospital, which houses one of China’s most active organ transplant centres. (Hospital Files)

Quick Boom

China now has the world’s second-largest transplant industry after the United States. There are more than 700 transplant centers in a sprawling organ transplant system, with more than 160 national centers registered and approved by the authorities in 2007, according to data collected by investigators. But before 1999, there were only 150 transplant institutions in China.

Based on the analysis of infrastructure and capacity at transplant hospitals, investigators estimated the regime performs an estimated 60,000 to 100,000 transplants each year, according to a 2016 report co-authored by Matas, Kilgour, and Gutmann. The estimation far exceeded the 10,000 transplants that Huang Jiefu, the then-deputy minister of health, said were performed each year.

Epoch Times Photo
(L-R) David Kilgour, David Matas, and Ethan Gutmann, authors of “Bloody Harvest/The Slaughter: An Update,” in London, England, on Nov. 25, 2014. (Simon Gross/The Epoch Times)

Such a mammoth output of the country’s transplant industry points to a large organ pool. However, there was no official organ donation and distribution system in China until 2015.

The first organ transplant operation in China occurred in the 1970s. Chinese people, meanwhile, are reluctant to donate their organs because of the country’s tradition that views the body as a gift from their parents and prescribes it be left untouched after death. By 2003, the country’s organ donation figure remained at zero, China’s state media revealed.

Most of the organs for transplant had come from death-row prisoners, senior Chinese officials acknowledged for the first time in 2005. The claim marked a U-turn for the regime, which had over the years denied procuring organs from prisoners, a practice that was condemned by human rights organizations and outlawed by countries outside China given death-row prisoners lack the ability to provide free consent.

However, the number of death-row executions could not explain the number of transplants being conducted in the country.

Epoch Times Photo
Dr. Jiefu Huang, Chairman of the Chinese National Organ Donation and Transplantation Committee, at the Chinese embassy in Rome on Feb. 6, 2017. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

In 2015, amid growing scrutiny of its transplant abuses, the Chinese regime announced it would no longer source organs from death-row prisoners for transplants, and solely rely on a voluntary donation system.

Again, this official statement didn’t satisfy investigators who said the nascent organ donation system couldn’t be the main source for the staggering number of transplants occurring.

Researchers have even called into question the veracity of China’s official organ donation figures. A 2019 study published in BMC Medical Ethics found that data from the official organ donation database matched “almost precisely to a mathematical formula.” For instance, in 2016, data collected from the Chinese Red Cross, which has no affiliation with the International Red Cross, showed 21.3 organs were procured from each donor in a 10-day period, which the authors described as “a clearly impossible feat.”

Epoch Times Photo
Practitioners of the Falun Gong spiritual practice doing standing exercises in Beijing before the persecution began in 1999. (Courtesy of Minghui.org)

Killing Falun Gong Adherents for Their Organs

An independent tribunal and researchers have concluded that the main source fueling the rapid expansion of China’s organ transplant industry was detained Falun Gong practitioners.

The organ harvesting industry coincidently boomed at the same time when the regime escalated the national campaign to eradicate Falun Gong, a spiritual practice consisting of moral teachings based on the principles of truthfulness, compassion, and forbearance, along with meditative exercises.

Since its introduction in China in 1992, the practice surged in popularity, leading to an estimated 70 million to 100 million adherents in the country by the end of the decade.

Viewing the enormous popularity as a threat to the Party’s control, then-Chinese leader Jiang Zemin personally initiated a violent campaign to “eradicate” the spiritual group in 1999.

 

Epoch Times Photo
Police detain a Falun Gong practitioner on Tiananmen Square as a crowd gathers around in Beijing on Oct. 1, 2000. (AP Photo/Chien-min Chung)

Adherents of the practice across the country found all sorts of ways to appeal to central authorities to call for an end to the suppression. For this, they were beaten, arrested, and thrown in labor camps, detention centers, and so-called reeducation facilities, where they were tortured. To protect their families and friends, many refused to disclose their identities to police. Some have since disappeared.

Chen Ying, a woman from the eastern port province of Shandong who now lives in France, was one among those who have languished in Chinese detention centers. Chen was arrested three times between 2000 to 2001 as she refused to renounce her belief in Falun Gong. Each time she was tortured, she told investigators, but what she couldn’t understand at the time was the physical examinations.

“At the end of September 2000, as I would not tell them my name, I was called out by the police and taken to a hospital for a complete medical examination: cardiac, blood, eyes, etc. I had to carry chains on my legs and I was attached to a window frame. The police injected me with unknown substances. After the injections, my heart beat abnormally quickly. Each one gave me the impression that my heart was going to explode,” Chen told investigators.

Like Chen, many adherents reported that they were subjected to physical examinations, particularly blood tests—a prerequisite for organ transplantation. Others who’ve escaped China after being detained, including Uyghurs, also spoke of receiving blood pressure tests and other medical tests, during a hearing before an independent people’s tribunal in London in 2019.

“Why would detained Falun Gong practitioners receive specific physical examinations (including x- rays, ultrasound, blood tests) while at the same time being subjected to brainwashing, labor work, torture or torture death?” Dr. Torsten Trey, executive director of the advocacy group Doctors Against Forced Organ Harvesting, asked during the same hearing.

Among other pieces of evidence, doctors and nurses have admitted to using organs from Falun Gong practitioners in secretly recorded phone calls by investigators who presented themselves as potential patients needing an organ.

Epoch Times Photo
Former Communist Party head Jiang Zemin pictured in the Great Hall of the People on Oct. 21, 2007. As the Party leadership struggles over how to handle Bo Xilai, in the background is Jiang Zemin, who is ultimately responsible for the atrocities Bo carried out. (Goh Chai Hin/Getty Images)

An Order From Jiang

Additionally, phone calls conducted by the World Organization to Investigate the Persecution of Falun Gong, a U.S-based non-profit, indicate that this grisly practice was ordered by the top levels of the Chinese regime, rather than this being the case of a crime conducted by just some unregulated hospitals and unethical surgeons.

In one case, a senior Chinese military official made it clear that the instruction was from Jiang Zemin, the former Chinese leader, himself.

“At the time, it was Chairman Jiang. There was an instruction to start this thing, organ transplantation,” said Bai Shuzhong, former minister of health of the People’s Liberation Army General Logistics Department.

The existence of the order was also confirmed by Bo Xilai, a disgraced high-ranking official who was a key figure within the political faction loyal to Jiang, during another phone call.

When Bo visited Hamburg in September 2006, an investigator posing as an official from the Chinese embassy in Germany had a phone conversation with Bo. Asked about whether the order to harvest organs from Falun Gong practitioners was from himself or Jiang, Bo replied, “President Jiang’s.”

Like other high-ranking officials and military officers in the Jiang faction, Bo, as well as his right hand Wang Lijun, had played a role in the forced organ harvesting from living Falun Gong practitioners, investigators found.

In the early 2000s, Bo served as the head of Liaoning, a northeast province that was home to the notorious Masanjia forced labor camp. Under Bo’s watch, Masanjia emerged as one of the deadly camps for Falun Gong practitioners, who referred to it as a “dark den of evil.” Liaoning Province was also the first region where whistleblowers alleged that live organ harvesting took place.

(L Counter clockwise)Bo Xilai, Jiang Zemin, Wang Lijun. (Getty Images)
(Clockwise)Bo Xilai, Jiang Zemin, Wang Lijun. (Feng Li/Getty Images)

At that time, Wang was the police chief of Liaoning’s Jinzhou city. In 2009, a policeman, who worked under Wang, told investigators that Wang had ordered that they “must eradicate all” Falun Gong practitioners.

The policeman recounted how two military medical professionals conducted a forced organ removal operation in April 2002 in a surgery room at a military hospital in Shenyang, the provincial capital of Liaoning.

The patient, a female Falun Gong practitioner in her 30s, was still alive at the time of extraction, though “countless wounds” could be seen on her body after suffering a week-long torture session, the man said. The policeman was on armed guard at the site, where he witnessed the entire operation.

“They cut her chest with a knife … She shouted ‘Ah’ loudly, saying ‘Falun Dafa is great,'” he recounted.

“She said, ‘You killed me, one individual.'”

Her heart and two kidneys were cut out, he said, and no anaesthetics were used. The woman died in pain.

killing of Falun Gong followers and harvesting of their organs
During a rally joined by thousands of Falun Gong practitioners, four demonstrators play in an action drama Taipei, Taiwan April 23, 2006 (Patrick Lin/AFP/Getty Images)

Wang’s security bureau also ran an affiliate laboratory where executions, organ harvesting, organ transplants, and related experimentation were carried out, Wang revealed during an award ceremony in 2006. The award from the Guanghua Science and Technology Foundation, a charitable organization under the direct leadership of the CCP’s Youth League, was for his team’s pioneering research on practical organ transplantation.

“For a veteran policeman, to see someone being executed and to see this person’s organs being transplanted to several other persons’ bodies, it was profoundly stirring. This is a great endeavor that involved much hard work from many people,” Wang said in his acceptance speech.

International Response

While the regime continues to cover up its multi-billion dollar organ transplant business, more medical professionals and lawmakers in the West have started to speak out.

The United States, the European Union, medical organizations, and rights advocacy groups have voiced their concerns about China’s state-sanctioned forced organ harvesting. The United Nations has yet to issue a statement. Dozens of human rights experts affiliated with the global body in 2021 expressed shock and dismay at what they said were credible allegations of forced organ harvesting.

Organ tourism to China is already banned in Israel, Taiwan, Italy, and Spain. The UK also changed its bioethics law to prevent British patients waiting for organs from going to China for transplants.

organ harvesting
Falun Gong practitioners participate in a parade to commemorate the 23rd anniversary of the April 25th peaceful appeal of 10,000 Falun Gong practitioners in Beijing, in Flushing, N.Y., on April 23, 2022. (Larry Dye/The Epoch Times)

Earlier this year, the International Society for Heart and Lung Transplantation banned research from China, citing concerns about the country’s transplant practices.

For Dr. Trey, executive director of Doctors Against Forced Organ Harvesting, a Washington-based advocacy group, there is still much work to be done to end the practice.

“The international society is overdue to take significant, meaningful steps to end forced organ harvesting in China,” Trey told The Epoch Times.

“Now is the time to help the Chinese people to end this barbaric practice. If one cannot impose changes on the Chinese government, at least Western parliaments are completely free to host hearings, pass resolutions or adopt laws.

“We have that freedom here in the West, what are we waiting for?”

Eva Fu contributed to this report.

Dorothy Li is a reporter for The Epoch Times based in Europe.