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China's Illegal Organ-Harvesting Trade Is Still Booming

The country is still removing organs from living prisoners and selling them to individuals all over the world.

Illustration by Sarah King

This post first appeared on VICE UK

Five years ago, VICE  interviewed human rights lawyer David Matas on the release of the Kilgour-Matas report—written by him and his colleague, Canadian MP David Kilgour—on organ harvesting in China.

A key observation of the report was that the waiting time for an organ transplant there was publicly listed at around three weeks, compared to an average wait of three years in the UK. This is concerning when you bear in mind that until  recently, China hasn't had a organized national donation system in place from which these organs could be sourced.


Involuntary organ harvesting is illegal in China, but since 1984 it's been legal to harvest the organs of executed criminals, with their own or their family's permission, after death. Kilgour and Matas's report alleged, however, that organs were being forcibly procured on demand , with the Chinese state sanctioning the surgical removal of their living detainees' organs for commercial purposes.

The report also alleged that China had been specifically targeting religious groups, particularly  ​Falu​n Gong practitioners. Adherents of that spiritual discipline have been persecuted and detained since a 1999 government campaign, coordinated by the Chinese Communist Party. Weirdly, the beginning of this persecution coincided with a ​sudden and timely increase in the amount of organ transplants that became available to international buyers.

Skip forward to 2014 and investigative journalist Ethan Gutmann has published research claiming that China is still removing the organs of its prisoners without consent, and that this is happening while detainees are still alive.  ​The Slaughter: Mass Killings, Organ Harvesting and China's Secret Solution to Its Dissident Problem, released in August this year, is a study of the Chinese state's orchestration of murder through the removal of organs. Using new evidence from more than 100 witnesses, including Chinese doctors and police officials, it estimates that more than 65,000 prisoners were killed between 2002 and 2008 alone.


"This is probably the most comprehensively researched work yet, framing forced organ harvesting within a history of persecuting prisoners of conscience and showing conclusively that they have been targeted for their organs since 1997, when they were transplanted to high-ranking state officials," Gutmann told me.

A Chinese ex-surgeon, Dr. Enver Tohti, reveals in The Slaughter that, in 1995, he was made to remove the liver and kidneys of a patient who was alive throughout the procedure. Tohti recalls that the patient had been shot nonlethally on an execution ground in Xinjiang, immediately before he was ordered to carry out the surgery (which later ensured the patient's death). This coincides with speculation that China has been using surgical extraction as an actual execution method (the organs begin to deteriorate after death, meaning that transplants have a greater chance of success the quicker the organs are removed from a body while the patient is still alive).

A micrograph showing lung transplant rejection. Image via ​Wiki Commons

Ex-prisoner Zhang Fengying recounted how she was medically examined alongside 500 others at a women's forced-labor camp in Beijing last year. "None of us knew what these blood tests were for," she said. As the doctors only examined the parts of her body associated with organs that can be sold—liver, kidneys, heart, lungs, skin, cornea, and hair—she now suspects that the prisoners were being examined on the basis of their suitability for forced organ transplants under the pretext of health checks.


"While it's unlikely that one person can provide more than one or two organs for donation, there is nothing to be gained from allowing a victim of forced organ harvesting to survive or escape," Gutmann told me, explaining that these operations tend to be fatal.

"Money is just a component in this process, but not the main point; there remain to be many Falun Gong practitioners who refused to be transformed away from their religious beliefs, so in the eyes of the Chinese Communist Party they have found a way to make the intolerable profitable," he added. " This is not exploitation; this is political genocide. These people are prisoners of conscience being killed for the value of their organs."

A (legal) organ transplantation. Photo via  ​Wiki Commons

However, things are getting slightly better—international awareness has improved since the 2009 report. When I spoke to David Matas recently, he told me, "There's much more recognition in the medical profession and in government policy of forced organ harvesting in China."

The Chinese Medical Tribune's conference was  ​boycotted this year by international organizations due to China's broken pledges on ending this practice. The World Health Organization has also established guidelines on the tracing and sourcing of organs for transplant since the allegations were first published, although these standards are yet to be met in China.

The EU passed a Parliamentary Resolution  ​last year that called for further investigation into these accusations, advising EU member states to issue travel warnings to citizens traveling to China for organ transplants. The United Nations, along with several nations, ​including the US, have also ​called on China to explain itself in regard to these allegations, although they have received little to no response.


Gutmann explained that while these resolutions bring much needed attention to the issue, Israel's criminalization of traveling to China for an organ transplant has been much more effective in direct prevention. "Israel is a state that relies on huge investments from China in technology and software, but they outright banned their citizens from going to China for organ transplant procedures, even though China has tremendous clout with Israel's enemies and in their economy," Gutmann explained. "While the US struggles to balance their desire to be a moral power with China being a superpower, Israel is an example of how it is perfectly possible to follow one's own values when dealing with China."

Changes have occurred in China and nationals are now given priority for organ transplants in a crackdown on foreign organ tourism, in response to the publication of such condemning research.  The Chinese Vice Minister for Health ​said in August last year that procuring organs from prisoners sentenced to death would be phased out by the middle of 2014 after the introduction of a national organ donation system. However, this failed to transpire and the practice is still widespread.

"Whether the initiation of forced organ harvesting was a direct state initiative or not, it's impossible for the Chinese Communist Party not to have known about it, and it's them who are ultimately responsible for its continuance," said Matthew Robertson, a US-based journalist and expert on China. "However, accountability for these crimes would delegitimize the authority of the state and, essentially, the party is always right."


In 2005, China's Deputy Health Minister ​admitted that up to 95 percent of organ transplants were being sourced from death row inmates, but the Chinese state has always feverishly denied allegations that live prisoners or prisoners of conscience are used in transplant procedures.

So what more can be done?  Ethan Gutmann, David Matas and David Kilgour met with English, Scottish and Welsh parliaments last week to push for legislation changes in the UK, which currently has no laws preventing citizens from traveling to China for organ transplants.

Furthermore, Doctors Against Forced Organ Harvesting (DAFOH) launched a petition to the United Nations last year and received over 1.5 million signatures worldwide demanding action against forced organ harvesting in China. Dr. Torsten Trey, the executive director of DAFOH, told us he estimates that more than 130,000 prisoners have been killed for their organs in the last 15 years. "This exceeds by far the student massacre from 1989, yet the international reaction is close to none," he said. "Occult killing for organs should not be treated less severely than public shooting in the Tiananmen Square protests.

"This state-sanctioned forced organ harvesting in China leads the very mission of medicine into the absurd: one cannot kill people in order to provide cures to others."

Gutmann also believes that more needs to be done, saying that the small scale of the response is due to a global disconnect with China. "The worst thing is that people in these labor camps think the world does not care and that they will never be heard. The West should stop acting like the Chinese are some kind of alien race; these are your fellow human beings in a powerful country."

​The Slaughter: Mass Killings, Organ Harvesting and China's Secret Solution to its Dissident Problem by Ethan Gutmann is available on Amazon.