At midday last Saturday in Sydney's Hyde Park, hundreds of Falun Gong practitioners were preparing for the World Falun Gong Day march: a celebration of the Taoist-Buddhist spiritual movement which is outlawed in China. But the march was also a protest against the state-sanctioned practice of harvesting human organs. Falun Gong claims that organ transplant operations are being carried out on living people, with the organs being made available to wealthy local and foreign patients.
In 1984, the removal of organs from executed prisoners was made legal in China, with consent from the condemned prisoner or their family. Knowledge of this practice increased outside of China, when in 2001 Dr Wang Guoqi testified before a US government committee that he'd been involved in these operations. In 2005, China's then vice health minister, Dr Huang Jiefu, acknowledged that the organs of executed prisoners were being supplied to foreigners.
But by 2006 reports that prisoners of conscience were being killed for their organs began emerging. Canadian MP David Kilgour and human rights lawyer David Matas carried out an investigation. Their research included interviews with the ex-wife of a surgeon, who said her husband had removed around 2,000 corneas from living prisoners, and phoning Chinese hospitals to inquire into transplant operations. Hospital staff asserted that the organs of Falun Gong practitioners were available and that these were considered a healthy source due to their exercise regime.
Chinese officials put out a statement explaining China followed World Health Organisation principles and had a regulated system of human organ transplants. They claimed the report was a smear campaign and hoped people would recognise Falun Gong as an "evil cult".
China carries out 10,000 organ transplant operations annually. Dui Hua, a San Francisco-based prisoner's rights organisation estimated in 2013 2,400 executions took place, while Amnesty International said they had evidence that put the 2006 figure at up to 8,000. A voluntary donor system was recently set up in the country in 2010, but this only accounts for 3,824 donors over the last five years. According to Falun Gong practitioners these figures don't add up.
The Kilgour-Matas report found that between 2000 and 2005 the source of organs for 41,500 transplant operations couldn't be accounted for. And outlined that a large increase in operations began directly after July 1999, which was when the Chinese government started detaining thousands of Falun Gong practitioners in labour camps.
Jintao Liu was in the second row of the World Falun Gong Day march as it made its way down George Street towards Chinatown. Now a permanent resident of Australia, Jintao hails from Yinshui Town in Shandong Province, China. The 34-year-old chemical engineer began practicing Falun Gong in 1997, whilst still in high school. In November 2006, he was sent to a government-sponsored "brainwashing class" for a month.
"Because I didn't give up my beliefs, I was sent to Beijing Changping Detention Centre. They can put you in places like that with no legal procedures," Jintao told VICE through a translator. "After two months, there was no sign I would give up my beliefs, so I was sentenced to two years in a labour re-education camp."
Falun Gong was first taught publicly in China in 1992 by its founder Li Hongzhi. Based on Buddhist and Taoist principles, the practice combines qigong and meditation exercises. John Deller, spokesperson for the Falun Dafa Association of Australia, said that the practice was initially supported by the Chinese government. Li was sent to cities around the country to teach Falun Gong and many Chinese Communist Party members began practicing it.
"It's only after they started to notice the numbers of people practicing that the leader Jiang Zemin, started to become suspicious," Deller said. "In 96, they started banning the book Zhuan Falun, the main teachings, which was well before the official persecution of Falun Gong began in July 99."
In the labour camp Jintao says he was isolated from other Falun Gong practitioners and kept amongst the regular prison population. He also claims he was subjected to a range of torture, including electric shocks, sleep-deprivation and being forced-fed through tubes in his nose.
According to Jintao, other prison inmates were directed to beat him and he noticed when they did so, they were careful not to damage his kidney area. He heard rumours from long-term inmates, about detainees who'd been transferred elsewhere and never came back.
"And I was blood tested many times. Usually you'd be sent to a medical centre, but sometimes it was just for blood tests," Jintao said, explaining that looking back now, he believes his compatibility was being tested for transplant operations.
Jintao asserts that after he was tortured with needles beneath his fingernails, he could no longer take it and wrote out a statement renouncing Falun Gong. But he stresses he never really gave up.
In 2013, he came to Australia as part of a tour group and once here, applied for a humanitarian visa.
Dr Sophia Bryskine, spokesperson for Doctors Against Forced Organ Harvesting (DAFOH), said transplant tourism is a billion dollar industry. In China it only takes a few weeks to get an organ match, which is made possible by the large living organ bank of prisoners of conscience. In contrast it can take up to three years to find an organ match in Australia.
"They're injected with partial anaesthetic, so they're not completely deceased when their organs are taken out," Bryskine explained. "The organs freshness has a much higher guarantee that it's going to match."
In December last year, Australian-trained doctor, Huang Jiefu, now head of China's Organ Donation Committee, announced that the nation would stop harvesting executed prisoners' organs on January 1. Bryskine said DAFOH remain sceptical the reforms will bring any relief to the transplant crisis, as China has still not acknowledged its use of prisoners of conscience. "There has been no indication that the use of prisoners of conscience as organ sources has ended or will end any time," she said.
According to NSW Greens MP David Shoebridge, there are dozens of Australians who travel overseas for organ transplants annually. He's been involved in drafting the NSWHuman Tissue Amendment (Trafficking in Human Organs) Bill, which is going to be presented before parliament in June. The legislation would make it a crime for a NSW resident to engage in unethical organ trading anywhere in the world.
Shoebridge added that he's spoken to a number Falun Gong practitioners, who whilst in Chinese prisons, "found themselves being subjected to repeated medical examinations, unrelated to their health but seemingly designed to work out their compatibility for the provision of their organs."
Follow Paul on Twitter: @paulrgregoire