Illustration by Sarah King
In 2006, David Matas, a prominent human rights lawyer, and his colleague David Kilgour released a report claiming that the Chinese government was using imprisoned Falun Gong practitioners as an unwitting organ transplant supermarket. Unsurprisingly, the government has denied this claim. It sounds like a story from a shitty horror film but, according to Matas, it couldn’t be more real.
Vice: What is Falun Gong?
It is an exercise regimen, more a form of spirituality than an organised religion. People would go to parks and do these exercises together. In Beijing alone there were 3,000 exercise stations. It is rooted in ancient Chinese tradition and resonated with the population in the ideological vacuum after the events in Tiananmen Square.
Why the repression then?
The government originally encouraged it. What worried them was its ability to mobilise a crowd on short notice. If it were an organised religion it would have been easier for the government to get a handle on it. They could have appointed their own people to run it. But because of its amorphous nature they couldn’t.
The real trouble started in 1999, right?
There was a big debate about what to do with the Falun Gong. One argument was to encourage it—it was good exercise and would cut heath expenditure. But the other view that prevailed was that this group was not communist and represented an ideological threat. Some Falun Gong practitioners were arrested in April 1999 and there were protests. One of these crowds, in Tiananmen Square, was the largest ever assembled. That is when things got hard for the Falun Gong. The government was scared.
It wasn’t until 2006 that you became aware of this organ harvesting. How did the word spread?
It was the ex-wife of an ex-surgeon who originally approached me. He had told her that he and his colleagues had been harvesting the corneas of imprisoned practitioners.
So how do you go about harvesting someone’s organs?
We interviewed a lot of Falun Gong ex-prisoners. They had been subjected to extensive medical tests while in jail. In my view, the only possible explanation for the kinds of test being carried out on all Falun Gong and death row prisoners is that they are being tested to assess suitability for organ donation. One ex-medical staff member we spoke to told us about how he used to see the prisoners being given a prolonged sedative injection through a drip. He was told this was because they were being prepared for organ harvesting. In some cases the prisoners are executed and then the organs are harvested afterwards—the surgeons wait until the shooting stops. But as soon as you are dead, your organs start to deteriorate. So that’s the advantage of live harvesting.
So what sort of numbers are we looking at?
We estimate 10,000 organ-harvesting operations per year. With statistics it gets tricky as the Chinese government don’t really produce statistics. We did some extrapolation based on the number of organs available before the persecution of Falun Gong started, and after. We estimate 75,000 of those are Falun Gong. There is no other explanation for the increased volume of transplants available after 1999. The UN tried to get China to explain the evidence about transplants and the Falun Gong persecution, but they ignored the question.
Has there been any progress made in reducing this flow of organs over the last few years?
According to their own statements, the Chinese government have reduced the number of hospitals involved from about 600 to 150-ish. The other thing they’ve done is made local recipients a priority over foreigners. Frankly, as long as they have the death penalty and are persecuting the Falun Gong, then the problem won’t go away.