The existence of the Chinese Laogai, or forced labour camps, is not a new discovery. Harry Wu, a former Laogai prisoner, described them 10 years ago as “the core of the human rights question in the People´s Republic of China today.” (see Index 4/1996) But what happens when a repressive regime figures out how to use a “fundamental machine for crushing human beings physically, psychologically, and spiritually” to turn a profit not just from the labour of prisoners, but from their deaths as well? The answer has come to light over the past few years as reports have trickled out about the consequences Falun Gong practitioners have faced for leading spiritually, morally and physically healthy lifestyles: the removal of their organs for sale to facilitate a black market transplant trade. Matthew Graham reports for Index on Censorship

The issue resurfaced in late May when European Parliamentary Vice President Edward McMillan-Scott visited the People’s Republic of China and was asked to a secret meeting with two Falun Gong practitioners and former prisoners. One of the men, Niu Jinping, described the brutality of the prison in which they were held: his wife, who is still imprisoned, was beaten for 20 straight hours, so severely that she lost her hearing, and at least 30 other practitioners in the prison had reportedly died during such sessions. Cao Dong wept as he told McMillan-Scott of his discovery of his friend’s corpse; it was covered in holes where the organs had been taken out.

Number of victims unknown
The actual number of victims of the organ harvesting is difficult to establish due to the lack of Falun Gong access to prisons and prison documents and the clandestine nature of the practice. However several sources place the number of prisoners held at Sujiatun Prison, the most infamous site, at 6,000, with up to three-fourths of them having been executed to facilitate transplants. After the existence of Sujiatun came to light, it was reported that 35 other such sites exist where organs are being removed. According to multiple reports, including a release from the New Zealand Falun Dafa Association and independent reports received by the U.S. State Department, the organs are not always taken from executed prisoners; the victims are alive, and the removal is the execution.
Practitioners of Falun Gong are considered ideal candidates for transplants by the Chinese because of their lifestyle, which includes refraining from bad food, liquor and tobacco and doing daily tai-chi-like exercises. The fact that the government outlawed the practice and holds members as political prisoners adds both convenience and a sense of legitimacy for those who take part in the organ harvesting.

Falun Gong a threat to president
The Falun Gong was founded in 1992 by Li Hongzhi and based on three principles: truth, compassion and tolerance. Through these principles and daily exercises, practitioners work toward a higher spiritual state, much like in Buddhism. However, the organisation grew too large for the Chinese government to tolerate, comprising as many as 70 million adherents according to a U.S. Congress report. When the government began to restrict the practice in 1999, 10,000 to 30,000 Falun Gong gathered in Beijing to demand recognition. Seeing a nationwide group large and well-organised enough to offer a view alternative to the Chinese Communist Party, President Jiang Zemin felt threatened and outlawed Falun Gong on 21 July. Raids on the residences of Falun Gong teachers and leaders and bookstores selling Falun Gong literature followed (see Index 5/2000).

The government began a smear campaign shortly thereafter, quite effectively convincing much of the public that Falun Gong was a cult and that its adherents were losing their minds. Having justified their actions by placing the blame with the “crazy cult” rather than fostering a notion that the government sought to quell opposition, the PRC began the first phase of the physical abuse against Falun Gong: sending practitioners to mental hospitals and drugging them until they either disavowed the practice or had been so subdued by the various drugs that they no longer maintained a will to oppose (see Index 4/01).

The Falun Gong “problem”
Accompanying this was the formation of the 6-10 Office, charged with destroying the Falun Gong “problem”. The thinly-defined role of the office lent it great power, and it became known to local officials that they would face greater consequences for allowing a Falun Gong practitioner to leave their province to protest in Beijing than they would for simply killing him or her.

But this was all part of the drive to paint Falun Gong as a threat. The Chinese had actually found their more profitable method of dealing with the prisoners by October 1995 according to a CNN interview with a defector, Wang Guoqi. The doctor told the U.S. House of Representatives that he was ordered to remove kidneys and skin from prisoners, at least one of whom was still alive during the process. The U.S. State Department acknowledged in the same year that evidence of these atrocities was “overwhelming”.

Prisoners´ bodies used without consent
Organ harvesting is technically illegal in the People´s Republic of China, but the authorities have found loopholes. The legislation dictating the use of the deceased comes from 1984 and states that organs can only be used with the consent of the family or if the body goes unclaimed. The guards at the prison camps simply incinerate the bodies immediately after organ removal, eliminating any chance of identification and claiming of the body. They then can assert that the prisoner gave them consent and, even if there is no evidence to support such a claim, there is also no evidence to challenge it. One Chinese doctor who revealed details of the practice also sites a CPC ordinance dating from 1962 stating that the bodies of prisoners can be used in whatever means necessary to support the Republic. Under this clause prisoners were reportedly used as food during the Cultural Revolution.

Despite the inability to prove undeniably the organ harvesting, international leaders agree that enough “anecdotal and circumstantial” evidence exists to support the claims. Besides the testimony given to McMillan-Scott, reports have surfaced from the former wife of a doctor who performed these operations, Chinese officials who’d been offered asylum in the U.S. and Australia and by Chinese Deputy Health Minister Huang Jiefu, who acknowledged the practice on 2 December 2005 in a speech calling for increased regulation of the practice.

The Epoch Times, a Falun Gong newspaper based in the United States but distributed internationally, called different hospitals and transplant clinics under the guise of normal people wanting operations. They were told that the organs would be good because they were from Falun Gong. They were also told to hurry, because there were plenty of organs at the time but that a shortage may be coming. This is in reference to new legislation, the Interim Regulation for Human Organ Transplant Practice, which went into effect on 1 July 2006 and requires written consent for the use of organs. The law is expected to have little effect on the market however, as the organ harvesting wasn’t technically legal before, either.