A respected prosecutor chaired a panel of experts to examine whether China ended its practice of organ harvesting in 2006, as Beijing claims. These human rights advocates, physicians, and diverse leaders uncovered haunting violations.
Speculation around a trade deal between the People’s Republic China (PRC) and the US continues to dominate national headlines. This week President Donald Trump plans to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the G-20 Summit in Osaka, Japan.
Human rights advocates have noted several major issues for President Trump to raise in dialogue with the Chinese leader, including the pervasive imprisonment of Uighur Muslims, ongoing destruction of Christian churches, mistreatment of protesters in Hong Kong, an ethically troubling social credit system, and the rise of Chinese cyberattacks on US government and private networks.
To all of these, a new report adds another grave concern. Following a year-long investigation, this week an independent panel of experts denounced China’s ongoing practice of organ harvesting. Released Monday, a 60-page summary report of the China Tribunal documents how the Communist Chinese government systematically runs medical tests on religious minority groups and forcibly extracts their organs on demand.
“In all, but one, countries of the world, organs can only be removed from people who are brain dead,” states the report. “That has not been the case in the PRC… Such acts constitute crimes against humanity, which the Tribunal is certain beyond reasonable doubt [have] occurred.”
Based in Britain, with panelists included from the US, Malaysia, and Iran, the nongovernmental group convened last year as the Independent Tribunal into Forced Organ Harvesting from Prisoners of Conscience in China, or simply the China Tribunal. Their report identifies the Falun Gong—a sect of Buddhists devoted to truthfulness, compassion, forbearance—as primary victims of this deadly organ harvesting. Among other minority groups affected are Uighur Muslims, Tibetan Buddhists, and house-church Christians.
“Credible evidence shows that prisoners are literally being murdered in order to harvest their organs for profit,” said Gary Bauer, an appointed member of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). “In many cases, these are prisoners of conscience—people who are in jail because of how they worship God or choose to seek God.
“It is suspected the profits from this practice are going to the Communist Chinese government.”
Firsthand Accounts, Dedicated Advocates
London barrister Sir Geoffrey Nice, who led the prosecution of former Serbian president and war criminal Slobodan Milošević, chaired the group of seven experts.
“They got a really heavy hitter, an esteemed lawyer, to lead this effort,” said Reggie Littlejohn, a human rights attorney and graduate of Yale Law School, in a phone interview. “This Tribunal has gathered all kinds of incriminating evidence. You can’t really depend on the UN Human Rights Council to do an investigation like this, because China currently sits on that council and they can veto anything.”
Official Chinese figures on organ donations contrast with independent estimates using widely accepted methodology. The China Tribunal relied on testimony from more than 50 expert witnesses, including authors Ethan Gutman, David Kilgour, and David Matas. In 2016, they co-authored a book-length exposé on these practices.
Using updated data based on their work, the report estimates that 60,000 to 90,000 organs have been forcibly removed from victims every year over the past decade, increasing from approximately 40,000 annually when the practice began in earnest in the new millennium. These operations occurred at over 700 hospitals and facilities across China.
Credible reports show the practice predates the twenty-first century. Dr. Enver Tohti, age 57, practiced medicine for 13 years in northwest China. Having emigrated to the United Kingdom in 1999, he will never forget an incident four years earlier in China when he was forced to engage in unethical conduct.
“My supervisor, a chief surgeon, asked me to remove a liver and two kidneys from an executed prisoner,” said Tohti, reached via phone. “But that prisoner was still alive. I was told to cut deep and work fast. When I finished, a guard said, ‘Remember that today nothing happened.’ It shows how humans do not have dignity in Chinese society.”
Following international criticism, China announced in 2006 the cessation of its systematic organ extraction program—ostensibly, to be taken over by voluntary organ donations. However, the new report documents how evidence of its demise does not add up. While other nations have taken decades to piece together a nationwide organ donation program, China claims to have done so in six years.
Official PRC data states that, from 2010 to 2016, voluntary organ donations rose 12,000 percent. Forensic statistical analysis overseen by the independent panel concluded the data has been falsified.
Claims of Chinese Government Do Not Add Up
The International Coalition To End Transplant Abuse In China (ETAC), a nonprofit group, convened the panel yet kept its distance to ensure the independence of the seven leaders in science, human rights, commerce, and law.
Renowned British surgeon Martin Elliott led the panel in examining medical evidence. The report praises organ transplantation as “a scientific and social triumph”—advances that nonetheless require organ donor consent and transparent standards to be administered ethically.
According to the report, China has rejected all such standards. “Thousands of innocents have been ‘killed to order,’ having the physical integrity of their beings—their bodies—cut open while still alive,” states the report. “Their kidneys, livers, hearts, lungs, cornea, and skin [were] removed and turned into commodities for sale.”
Chinese physician Tohti has dedicated himself to research these current practices and publicize the facts. He testified before the expert panel last December.
“In China, they give them general anesthetic and don’t let them wake up from it,” said Tohti. “That’s how they treat religious minorities—for criminals, they shoot them and then extract the organs. Western doctors do not know the dark side of this organ transplantation system. They know organs are easy to obtain in China, but they may not know where those organs are coming from.”
Transplant tourism to China has risen dramatically over the past two decades, with costs well below other nations. Many recipients of organ transplants engage in a form of plausible deniability. However, experts note the ethical issues at stake should be clear.
“In the US or Canada, you have to wait months or years for somebody to become a match,” says Littlejohn, who leads the nonprofit group Women’s Rights Without Frontiers. “You can schedule an organ transplant on a promise from the Chinese government that they will have the organ for you shortly after you arrive.”
“Why is it, in China, the wait is so short?” she asks. “The only way you can do that is if you already have a database of people who would be a likely match.”
Victims Denied Basic Rights
Rather than provide a comprehensive look at human rights abuses, the China Tribunal sought to solely examine the issue of organ harvesting. However, because the practice targets religious minority groups, the report provides background on their persecution.
“Since 1999, the PRC [has] regarded practitioners of Falun Gong as unworthy of any of those universal rights that attach to human beings by reason of their humanity, simply to maintain their power and authority over the Chinese people,” it states.
USCIRF commissioner Bauer, who leads the nonprofit group American Values, has raised questions about the plight of minority groups in China for decades. Two months ago when releasing its annual report, USCIRF named abuses in China as a top concern.
“Because they find it to ultimately be a threat to the Communist regime, the Chinese government has declared war on all forms of religious faith,” he said. “At one point, as many as 70 million Chinese were part of this Falun Gong movement. Today, a tremendous crackdown continues with mass arrests, long prison terms—even the lawyers who represent them end up arrested.”
The China Tribunal report minces no words about the conditions faced by religious minorities in China. The torture “is systematic in nature and designed to punish, ostracise, humiliate, dehumanise, demean and demonise practitioners of Falun Gong into renouncing and abandoning their practice of it.”
In recent years, Uighur Muslims in the northwestern Chinese province of Xinjiang have been imprisoned and sent to reeducation camps. The BBC recently released a video report after being invited by Chinese authorities inside one of these camps. Despite official claims of such facilities being “schools,” the journalists showed those inside lack basic liberties.
Enver Tohti hails from this Uighur-majority area. “My extended family are still there,” said Tohti. “The information I’m getting is that, so far, they may be well. But I’m not sure it is correct, because they are not allowed to say anything contrary to the government.”
The China Tribunal states that “evidence…may emerge in due course” of organ harvesting among Uighur Muslims, though currently it points to primary targeting of the Falun Gong.
What Can Be Done
As President Trump prepares for the G-20 meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping, leaders such as Bauer see these discussions as an opportunity to raise this issue among a litany of other human rights concerns.
“In bilateral discussions with China, these issues should always be put on the table,” said Bauer. “Violations of human rights and human dignity committed by China are almost unprecedented. This nongovernmental report out of Britain is very credible, and we intend to bring it to the attention of Congress and the Trump administration.”
While citing the PRC as in “substantial breach” of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the report views the United Nations with skepticism as a venue for recourse. China has a permanent seat on the powerful UN Security Council, and its prominent spot on the UN Human Rights Council runs through the end of the year.
“This is something that I have been frustrated with for many years,” says Littlejohn. “Almost every year, I submit a complaint about forced abortions and other human rights atrocities in China to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. I never get a single word back. These go nowhere at the UN because China is so very powerful there.”
Medical societies may be another avenue for advocates to press for change. The report calls out The Transplantation Society (TTS), an international forum founded in 1963 to advance organ transplantation. Closely linked to the World Health Organization, its stated principles include to promote ethical standards for clinical care and scientific investigation.
TTS has lent its credibility to recent claims of the Chinese government—that its organ donation program established in 2013 represents a sea change. “It is our impression that there has been a change in policy and practice in China,” TTS leaders stated on July 31, 2016. “To the best of our ability, we believe that these [organ donation] centres are no longer using organs from executed people.”
The China Tribunal responded this week. “The evidence…does not support their optimism that the PRC’s unethical practices have ceased,” they stated. “Very many people have died indescribably hideous deaths for no reason, [and] more may suffer in similar ways.”
As China increasingly invests in diverse industries, educational institutions, and other sectors globally, many interests remain firmly on the side of the Communist state. From the United Nations to medical societies to many Western governments, religious rights and human liberties seem secondary concerns when compared to economic clout.
Enver Tohti, whose medical certifications have expired, currently works as an Uber driver in Britain. Having seen the Communist Chinese government up-close for many years, he expresses doubts about the likelihood of improving conditions for his countrymen. “If the Communist Party is still in power, I don’t believe they can be held accountable,” says Tohti. “There is no way. They will not give up unless the party is somehow overturned.”
Still, the independent panel notes the collective sway of people speaking out in today’s globally connected society.
“The usually powerless citizen is, in the internet age, more powerful than s/he may recognize,” the report concludes. “Criminality of the order revealed may allow individuals from around the world to act jointly in pressurising governments so that [they] and other international bodies are unable not to act” (emphasis added).
Josh M. Shepherd covers culture, faith, and public policy issues for media outlets including The Stream and The Federalist. A graduate of the University of Colorado, he previously worked on staff at The Heritage Foundation and Focus on the Family. Josh and his wife live in the Washington, DC, area with their son.
Photo Credit: Shanghai in 2014. By Carlos Rivera, via Flickr.