In March 2006, an alarming report surfaced in China: ‘One of my family members was involved in the operation to harvest Falun Gong practitioners’ organs.’ It came from a woman known only as “Annie,” and prompted multiple investigations into China’s alleged abuse of Falun Gong, a Chinese religious movement and offshoot of Buddhism.
Found in 1992 by Li Hong-zhi, Falun Gong has a spiritual philosophy based on truthfulness, compassion and forbearance. Over the next few years, it quickly became a dominant force in Chinese society, with millions adopting the peaceful practice. Despite initially supporting it, the ruling Chinese Communist Party – known for its authoritarian methods of controlling the populace – came to fear the huge surge in Falun Gong’s popularity and influence as an independent (non-government) organisation. Ultimately, Falun Gong was banned in 1999 and remains so today.
Following the ban, the government began an anti-religious campaign to put an end to the practice of Falun Gong. It was, as investigator Ethan Gutmann puts it, ‘a convert-to-the-Communist-Party-or-die scheme.’ Practitioners who refused to stop were tortured and disappeared into the notorious Chinese gulag, an umbrella term for China’s network of prisons, psychiatric hospitals, labour camps, detention centres and black jails. Today, almost 20 years later, tens of thousands of Falun Gong practitioners, along with thousands of other prisoners of conscience, are still missing.
It is very suspicious that the detainment and disappearance of thousands of Falun Gong practitioners 20 years ago coincided with the boom in China’s organ trade. While China claims that there are around 10,000 – 20,000 transplants annually, investigators place these figures much higher, between 60,000 – 100,000. It is believed that the majority of victims of forced organ harvesting are Falun Gong practitioners, and there are various witness accounts that corroborates this. For example, one account came from a female practitioner who’d been tortured in prison for years, and who’d only been spared due to a heart defect:
“In the end, every Falun Gong practitioner had been given a medical check-up and had his or her blood tested…non-Falun Gong practitioner prisoners didn't have to go through this...After the exams, I discovered that some practitioners had disappeared; I didn’t know where they went…I understood the reason for these medical tests after I heard about the CCP [Chinese Communist Party] harvesting organs from living Falun Gong practitioners.”
Organ harvesting from executed prisoners was already widespread before 1999, and the subsequent increase in China’s transplant tourism, coupled with the vast discrepancy between the official number of transplants and the number of transplants carried out in hospitals, altogether raises red flags. The numbers don’t add up. The fact that China has an extremely low rate of voluntary organ donations only makes the existing evidence more compelling.
For investigators, the absence of direct, incontrovertible evidence is the biggest problem moving forward. The victims of forced organ harvesting don’t survive and their bodies are never found – but this is only the tip of the iceberg. In response to this problem, the Independent Tribunal Into Forced Organ Harvesting from Prisoners Of Conscience in China (the China Tribunal) was established in London on 8th December 2018, and is due to report its findings in June 2019.
Since China is not under the territorial jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court, the latter cannot fully investigate and prosecute those responsible. However, the China Tribunal can arouse international attention, and from there actions can be taken to confront the urgent issue of forced organ harvesting in China.