Inmates at Chongqing Prison in China, May 2005. (Photo by China Photos/Getty Images)

Is the Chinese government really harvesting the organs of prisoners?

Labour MP Louisa Wall has claimed the Chinese government is harvesting the organs of Uyghur and Falun Gong prisoners. George Driver investigates where this claim comes from and whether it holds water.

The government has been walking a kind of moral tightrope in its relationship with China, at pains not to rock the boat with our biggest trading partner. In January, it made international headlines by being conspicuously absent from a Five Eyes agreement criticising China’s crackdown on pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. Trade minister Damien O’Connor then chided Australia to “follow us and show respect” towards China if it wanted to thaw its relationship with the emerging superpower. Australia (or rather, one of its main news networks) hit back with a sensationalist documentary characterising this country as “New Xi-Land” for its soft stance on Chinese human rights abuses.

And so enters Louisa Wall. On Monday, the Labour MP lobbed explosive comments into the minefield of NZ-sino relations. She told RNZ the Chinese government was harvesting the organs of Uyghur and Falun Gong prisoners to “service a global market where people are wanting hearts, lungs, eyes, skin” and a million Uyghurs are being used as slaves to pick cotton.

Jacinda Ardern later attempted to explain away the comments by saying Wall is a politician of many hats. When Wall made the comments, she was not representing the government, Ardern explained, but was wearing her Inter-Parliamentary Union for Democracy for Everyone hat (presumably she misspoke and meant to say Wall was wearing her Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China hat – Wall co-chairs the group which is heavily critical of China’s human rights record) .

But what were Wall’s comments based on and do they hold water?

Labour MP Louisa Wall (Photo: Radio NZ/ Phil Smith)

In the RNZ article, Wall said her comments were based on a report from the China Tribunal, which began investigating claims of forced organ harvesting in 2018. The tribunal was set up by the International Coalition to End Transplant Abuse in China (ETAC), an NGO whose sole purpose is to end forced organ harvesting in China (the tribunal claims it is entirely independent from ETAC). It was led by Sir Geoffrey Nice QC, a former International Criminal Court prosecutor who led the case against former Yugoslavia president Slobodan Milošević.

The tribunal held two hearings over six days where experts gave evidence that China has been engaged in harvesting the organs of Falun Gong prisoners for two decades. Notably, the Chinese government did not participate in the process (it was asked to but declined). In March last year the tribunal released a 562-page judgement (fortunately they also released a more digestible 60 page summary).

The judgement said China has practised state-sanctioned forced organ harvesting and that Falun Gong practitioners were probably the main source, possibly supplying tens of thousands of organs a year. However, it said it did not have sufficient evidence to prove that Uyghurs had their organs harvested.

So what’s the evidence? Well, there’s no smoking gun here. It seems clear that China has harvested organs from executed prisoners in the past – although it argues that the prisoners donated their organs. Whether this continues requires some leaps of faith and much of the evidence is circumstantial and hampered by China’s lack of transparency.

In 2010, the director of China’s organ donation committee was reported as saying over 90% of transplant organs came from executed prisoners. The CCP reportedly ended the practice in 2015 and moved to a donor system, but many observers remain sceptical that donors are the only source of organs in the country.

The crux of the tribunal’s verdict is based on reports that China has suspiciously short wait times for organ transplants, which the tribunal said wouldn’t be possible with a donor system, and that China’s official transplant figures mask about 50,000 transplants, which it said must come from Falun Gong prisoners.

China claims to conduct about 12,000 transplants a year from about 5000 donors. However the report said the country has at least 5,775 beds dedicated to transplants. The tribunal accepted evidence that these beds would likely be occupied all of the time, each catering for 12 patients a year, and therefore there must be at least 69,000 transplants carried out every year – about six times the official figure – but possibly as high as 90,000.

It also said wait times are much shorter in China than in other countries, with reports that people could acquire a transplant within days – even on a select date – rather than having to wait years, which is common under a donor system. It said the short wait times “could only occur if there was an available bank of potential living donors who could be sacrificed to order”.

Falun Gong protest against organ harvesting

Falun Gong protest featuring a simulation of a prisoner organ-harvesting, Hong Kong, 2008 (Photo: Cory Doctorow / CC BY-SA 20)

So where did all the extra organs come from? The tribunal found they came from Falun Gong prisoners. It heard evidence from former prisoners who said they had undergone medical tests, including x-rays and ultrasounds, which was “highly suggestive of methods used to assess organ function”. Some prisoners also said they were told they were “kept as spare parts”. It also said investigators had called a number of hospitals in 2006 and some admitted using Falun Gong prisoners to supply the organs to order.

Based on this, the tribunal said there was “clear evidence of a supply chain of organs over many years from an unaccountable source”, while “the Falun Gong once incarcerated could be a useable source” and there was “no other identified source”. It concluded that it was “certain that it was indeed the Falun Gong who were used as a source – probably the principal source – of organs for forced organ harvesting”.

The report noted that some experts have “spoken favourably of PRC transplantation practices”, but because they declined to attend the hearings they are essentially discounted. It is unclear what evidence, if any, it heard in defence of China – the report said it “attempted to honour the principle of ‘hearing the other side’ by asking the PRC to make its case known, but with no success” and it seems to have left it at that. In determining whether organ harvesting continues, it said “there is no evidence of the practice having been stopped and the tribunal is satisfied that it is continuing”.

It seems plausible there are other explanations for many of the claims in the report, but based on this investigation we just don’t know.

A report in the Washington Post published in 2017 said China had ceased harvesting organs from prisoners and that Chinese levels of usage of the immunosuppressant required for transplants are consistent with the official transplant figures.

But a number of countries and institutions have raised concerns about the lack of transparency around China’s organ transplant regime or have accused it of organ harvesting in the past.

Notably, in 2013, the EU passed a resolution expressing “deep concern over the persistent and credible reports of systematic, state-sanctioned organ harvesting from non-consenting prisoners of conscience… including from large numbers of Falun Gong practitioners imprisoned for their religious beliefs”. It said China had “failed to account adequately for the sources of excess organs” when questioned by the UN Special Rapporteur.

In 2016, the US House of Representatives also passed a resolution calling on China to “end the practice of organ harvesting from prisoners of conscience”.

Perhaps the most balanced assessment comes from the Australian government’s Human Rights Sub-Committee, which investigated organ trafficking and organ transplant tourism in 2018. It said “there is sufficient evidence that China used the organs of executed prisoners in the past without their free consent” and there are “contending views about whether this practice is still occurring, although other evidence points to an ongoing, possibly worsening, regime of repression and human rights violations in China”.

“Given this, the onus is on the Chinese authorities to demonstrate to the world that they are not overseeing or permitting the practice of harvesting organs from executed prisoners without their knowledge and free consent,” the report said. “In the absence of such a demonstration by the Chinese authorities, the world is entitled to question assertions of claims to the contrary.”

So is China harvesting organs from prisoners? The evidence isn’t clear-cut, but if I underwent an organ transplant in China I wouldn’t feel 100% confident my new kidney didn’t come from an executed Falun Gong prisoner.

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