Since 1999, the number of transplant centres in China has increased by over 300%, and wait times have dropped dramatically, despite the fact that China does not have much in the way of an organ donation program. In January of 2015, the Chinese government announced that it would be moving from using organs taken from executed prisoners to a voluntary donor system. However, the official data provided by the Chinese government is not consistent with the number of transplants reportedly carried out at hospitals. Contrary to the reported 10,000 – 18,000 organs donated legally, researchers estimate that between 60,000 and 100,000 transplants are performed annually. An interim ruling by the China Tribunal in December of 2018 declared that the excess number of organs were being forcibly harvested from prisoners of conscience, most notably from members of Falun Gong. Falun Gong is a spiritual practice that focuses on meditation, spiritual teachings, and exercises to improve the health of the mind and body. Falun Gong was declared an ‘evil cult’ and outlawed in 1999 by Jiang Zemin, the head of the Communist Party. This led to a nationwide persecution of Falun Gong practitioners, with members losing jobs, facing imprisonment, and even being tortured or killed. Survivors also reported undergoing multiple medical exams and being blood-typed with the perceived outcome of being harvested for their organs. Some estimates put the annual worth of the illegal transplant business at over one billion dollars.
Prior to 2015, death row inmates were commonly used as a source for organs. Although China does not release data on the number of prisoners executed, Amnesty International estimates that the number is in the thousands, higher than the rest of the world combined. Despite the high number of executions, it would not be enough to allow for an organ trade of this magnitude. Further, China’s Criminal Procedure Law requires that prisoners sentenced to death be executed within seven days, which would not allow sufficient time for organs to be matched to potential donors at the speed at which they currently are. Dr. Huang Jiefu, formerly the vice minister of health, allegedly requested two backup livers for an operation in 2005 that were delivered the next morning. For such a thing to be possible, there must be a pool of healthy people that can be tapped to provide matching organs. To test this theory, in 2006 a group of researchers visited numerous hospitals and specifically requested organs taken from followers of Falun Gong, which they told were available. The tribunal ruling in 2019 confirmed this gross abuse of human rights, declaring that the Chinese government was, beyond a reasonable doubt, harvesting organs from prisoners of conscience.
Proponents of Falun Gong have been raising the alarm about their government-sanctioned persecution and mistreatment for decades. Ian Johnson of the Wall Street Journal won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting for a series of articles detailing the detainment and torture of Falun Gong prisoners of conscience by the Chinese government. Multiple publications and human rights organizations have also drawn attention to the plight of Falun Gong members. The Chinese government has repeatedly denied the allegations, calling them “baseless” and “ridiculous”, and insisting that all transplants are the result of their voluntary organ donation system, of which they claim to have the biggest in Asia. China has also continuously distributed propaganda to both their own citizens and those of other countries, claiming that Falun Gong is an ‘evil cult’ and positioning its practitioners are dangerous and threatening.
Falun Gong is a spiritual practice with the central tenants of Truthfulness, Compassion, and Tolerance or Forbearance. The practice is derived from Buddhist traditions and involves simple exercises and meditation. It was created by Li Hongzhi and introduced in 1992, and by 1999 had over 100 million followers. On July 22nd, 1999, in what was seemingly an attempt by the CPP’s leader to exemplify his power, Jiang Zemin declared that Falun Gong must be eliminated through “any means necessary.” He created a task force called the 610 Office and awarded them nearly unlimited power to eradicate the “Falun Gong problem.” A reported 50,000 people were detained in the first week of the crackdown alone. The government disseminated propaganda to cast Falun Gong members as dangerous, deviant, and abnormal and began a nationwide campaign to force Falun Gong members to renounce their beliefs. Methods included kidnapping and imprisonment, forced labour, the use of psychotropic drugs, and various types of torture including starvation, electrocution, and sleep deprivation. Conservative estimates place the death toll at over 1,000 Falun Gong practitioners during the first four years of persecution, with additional tens of thousands estimated to have been killed to support the organ trade. Falun Gong members have held numerous peaceful sit-ins in China and around the world, often handing out pamphlets explaining the situation and asking people to sign petitions. Many peaceful protests took place in Beijing shortly after the crackdown began. Dozens of practitioners travelled to participate, despite violent responses by government and military officials.
The China Tribunal, which was initiated by the International Coalition to End Transplant Abuse in China, ruled in 2019 that “forced organ harvesting has been committed for years throughout China on a significant scale and that Falun Gong practitioners have been one – and probably the main – source of organ supply.” The ruling was unanimous and sure beyond a reasonable doubt. The tribunal also referenced the continued persecution and detention of the Uyghur people, saying there was a reasonable assumption that they could be used as an ‘organ bank.’ While the actions of the Chinese government do meet two of three elements of genocide – namely causing serious bodily or mental harm, and killing members of a group – the tribunal could not prove intent to commit genocide, meaning the act of genocide could not be proved. The decision emphasized that the human rights abuses inherent to forced organ harvesting were despicable in their own right, regardless of whether the intent to commit genocide was legally present.
The tribunal called for the UN to further investigate whether the detainment and organ harvesting of Falun Gong practitioners and Uyghur people constitutes a genocide under the Genocide Convention, and for officials and perpetrators to be held accountable and tried in an international court of law. Israel, Taiwan, and Spain have banned ‘organ tourism’ from China, and other countries should be pressured to do the same. China must be held accountable and denounced by both the UN and other international communities, and humanitarian aid and intervention should be provided to members of these oppressed religious groups. The China Tribunal ended their ruling by stating that governments and other institutions that interact with the People’s Republic of China, should recognize that “they are, to the extent revealed [through the investigation], interacting with a criminal state.”
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