Falun Gong practitioner Sunny Lu, an adjunct professor of psychology at the University of Cincinnati, left China 22 years ago. But her battle to protect the lives of Falun Gong practitioners in China continues to this day.
Former President Jiang Zemin outlawed Falun Gong in China in 1999, and thousands of practitioners have been arrested and sent to prison camps in the past seven years. Recent allegations that tens of thousands of the practitioners' organs are being harvested while in these camps prompted many to speak up around the world.
In an Aug. 16 press conference in front of City Hall, Lu and other Falun Gong practitioners called for action against the Chinese government for harvesting the organs of thousands of Falun Gong practitioners, underground Christians and other religious and political dissidents.
The press conference was part of a three-state, 14-city car tour to raise awareness based on the results of an independent investigation conducted in July on behalf of the Coalition to Investigate the Persecution of Falun Gong in China. The coalition believes hearts, kidneys, livers and corneas are being taken from living victims and sold in China's lucrative transplant market.
"We come to you today on an urgent mission to inform the citizens of this area about a horrific situation which has arisen in the world and to ask your help in arousing all men and women of good will to stand with us in combating an unprecedented evil that challenges the norms of civilized society," Lu said.
Report into Allegations of Organ Harvesting of Falun Gong practitioners in China found that between 2000 and 2005, there were 41,500 organ transplants in China that willing donors cannot account for. The average organ waiting time in the United States is two to five years, according to the car tour's press packet, while a patient in China can receive a kidney within a week and a liver within a month.
Conducted independently and without pay by David Matas, a human rights lawyer, and David Kilgour, a former member of the Canadian Parliament and a former Secretary of State for Canada for the Asia Pacific region, the report concluded, "The government of China and its agencies in numerous parts of the country, in particular hospitals but also detention centres and 'people's courts,' since 1999 have put to death a large but unknown number of Falun Gong prisoners of conscience. Their vital organs, including hearts, kidneys, livers and corneas, were virtually simultaneously seized involuntarily for sale at high prices, sometimes to foreigners, who normally face long waits for voluntary donations of such organs in their home countries."
A belief system in jeopardy
Falun Gong, also known as Falun Dafa, is a practice of "meditation, gentle exercises and the cultivation of truthfulness, compassion, and tolerance with oneself," according literature distributed at the press conference. The Chinese government has worked to defame the reputations of Falun Gong members, bankrupt them and physically destroy them, according to the report. Matas and Kilgour were told by practitioners in Canada that members in China "were told by law-enforcement officers in different parts of China that 'death of Falun Gong members count as suicide, and they will be cremated directly.' "
Ruiji Zhang, a Falun Gong practitioner who spent one and a half years in Chinese detention and labor camps, spoke of the torture he endured. After going to Tiananmen Square to open a banner that said, "Falun Dafa is Good" in January 2001, he was dragged away by a police officer and questioned. Zhang refused to sign a "guarantee" to renounce Falun Gong.
Over the course of his detainment, he was kept in a detention center, an extreme supervision group and eventually a forced labor camp.
"The authorities made us dig ditches," Zhang said. "It was a highly intensified slavery labor. The police there force-fed with corn paste the Falun Gong practitioners who went on hunger strikes. Those who refused to take brainwashing were electric shocked, locked in small cells and not allowed to go to the toilet. Even their family members were forbid to visit them."
According to the report, approximately 830,000 Falun Gong practitioners were arrested by the end of April 2001. While detained, Zhang said other detainees would be sent to secluded labor camps and told by police that they would not return. It is here that Zhang believes organs were harvested.
Evidence hard to find
Matas and Kilgour struggled to find verifiable proof that organ harvesting was actually taking place. Were organ harvesting occurring, the only witnesses would be the victims and doctors conducting the surgeries. China has no freedom of information legislation, according to the report, and Matas and Kilgour were unable to visit China to investigate. But they said the evidence they did gather proved overwhelming.
"The combination of these factors, particularly when there are so many of them, has the effect of making the allegations believable, even when any one of them in isolation might not do so," the report said.
The elements of proof in Matas and Kilgour's report included the perceived threat the Chinese Communist Party sees in Falun Gong, the government's policy of persecution, the amount of unidentified and disappeared victims, the enormous sources of transplants that China has compared to other countries, corpses with missing organs that were found and admissions made by doctors in Chinese hospitals.
One doctor in a Zhongshan hospital said in mid-March that all of the organs he used for transplants come from Falun Gong practitioners. Many phone conversations with Chinese doctors are documented in the full report, which can be read online at http://investigation.go.saveinter.net. One such conversation on March 14, 2006 with a doctor at the Zhengzhou Medical University Organ Transplant Centre in the Henan Province, is revealing:
Dr. Wang: ... For sure, (the organ) is healthy. ... If it's not healthy, we won't take it.
Caller: I've heard that those kidneys from Falun Gong practitioners are better. Do you have them?
Wang: Yes, yes, we pick all young and healthy kidneys.
Caller: That is the kind that practices this type of (Falun) Gong.
Wang: For this, you could rest assured. Sorry I can't tell you much on the phone.
Caller: Do you get (them) out of town?
Wang: We have local ones and out-of-town ones.
Testimonials from numerous Falun Gong practitioners detained in China revealed that they were "systematically blood tested," according to the report. Matas and Kilgour doubt that the testing is done for health purposes as "it is unnecessary to blood test people systematically simply as a health precaution," and "the health of the Falun Gong in detention is disregarded in so many other ways." Blood testing is, however, a pre-requisite for organ transplants.
China fights back
Following the release of the report July 6, the Chinese Embassy in Canada released a statement countering it, calling it "biased and groundless."
"We have consistently abided by the relevant guiding principles of the World Health Organization endorsed in 1991, prohibiting the sale of human organs and stipulating that donors' written consent must be obtained beforehand and donors are entitled to refuse the donation at the last minute," the statement said. "China has issued a regulation on human organ transplants, explicitly banning the sale of organs and introducing a set of medical standards for organ transplants in an effort to guarantee medical safety and the health of patients."
The legislation was created in March to be effective July 1 and will ban the sale of human organs while requiring the donor to give written permission for the transplantation. The legislation is a "temporary regulation," according to the report.
Matas finds China's response, which can be read at http://www.chinaembassycanada.org/eng/xwdt/t265055.htm, to be unpersuasive, as it offers no other plausible possibility for the source of tens of thousands of organ transplantations.
"They have responded, but their response is so unpersuasive," Matas says. "If there were another explanation, you think they would produce it, but if you look at their response they posted, they attack us and attack the Falun Gong."
Jianhua Li, spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in Washington, says the organs come from willing donors.
"People are now more aware of organ donation, and more people are willing to donate their organs based on their own willingness," he says. "We have regulations about organ transplants, and it must be done on the basis of the donor's willingness."
Claims of organ harvesting is one of the many sensationalized stories pushed by Falun Gong members, according to Li.
"So many Falun Gong practitioners try to cook up these stories," he says. "They try to sensationalize stories by all means. Organ harvesting is only one of those issues. People outside China, they don't know much about Falun Gong. Falun Gong is an evil cult organization which has caused the deaths of 2,600 people."
Speech like this is only part of China's "hate campaign" designed to keep down the Falun Gong, according to Lu.
"This hate campaign is part of the Chinese communist regime," she says. "How they can kill so many people in China without the people reacting is because of the hate. They're using their diplomats and control over local Chinese communities. All of this is an extension of the persecution and an extension of the hate campaign."
Debate on the issue of organ harvesting also surrounds who, exactly, is doing the harvesting.
"We didn't come to any conclusions in our report whether it was corruption or policy and that would require more knowledge of the inter-workings of the Chinese system than we could possibly get," Matas says.
He believes there is a symbiosis between the two, which also factors into the health system being "woefully under-funded," which would motivate hospitals to take part in lucrative transplants.
Victor Shih, a political science professor at Northwestern University, specializes in how politics affects economic outcomes in China. He doubts that organ harvesting is an official policy of the government.
"I am sure there are isolated cases of organ harvesting conducted by greedy officials, but there is definitely no official Chinese policy, secret or otherwise, that would condone such a practice," Shih said in an e-mail.
Lu's recent car tour, however, assured her that many believe organ harvesting is going on and want it to stop.
"I think support is very strong, and people who are in the expert field are very concerned and very convinced," Lu says.
The Chinese government conducted two investigations into reports of organ harvesting, one a few months ago and another after Matas and Kilgour's report was released, Li says.
Lu does not believe the Chinese government.
"They will deny anything: the Tiananmen Square massacre, the SARS epidemic," she says. "They kept telling tourists to come. Why are we still taking them as a credible source of information?"
Turnout for the car tour varied from stop to stop, according to Lu. CityBeat was the only media outlet to attend the press conference in Cincinnati, while the tour's full day stop in Cleveland attracted much attention from passersby as well as doctors attending a conference.
Matas recognizes that discussion of international events can be hard for the average citizen.
"If you go to Cincinnati and talk about what's happening in Iran or Burma or Columbia or Ethiopia, it's very hard to mobilize concerns for countries that are away," he says. "People focus on their immediate environment and don't have connections with countries where they don't know people. We're a globally interconnected world and we share a common humanity. Organ transplants are not just a Chinese issue. There are many people in Cincinnati that need organ transplants and are waiting for organ transplants. ... (We need to) prevent becoming complicit in those crimes by not falling prey to take advantage of this system."
Matas says that he and Kilgour have gathered enough information for a second report, which they plan to release in October. Both are currently touring the world and sharing the results of their report. There is a gap in the international legal system that needs to be fixed, according to Matas.
"Although what's happening in China is illegal everywhere else, the laws pretty much everywhere else are territorial," he says. "What we've got is a gap in the international legal system that allows this to happen in China. We need to get the international legal system working to fix this gap."
Steps in the right direction
Dr. Kirk Allison, associate director of the Program in Human Rights and Medicine from the University of Minnesota, issued a statement July 24 at the "Forum On Stopping the Organ Harvesting in China" during the World Transplant Congress. Allison believes professional associations "should place a moratorium on research support and collaboration with transplantation in China, given that such collaboration tacitly facilitates the continuance of a gross violation of human rights."
Lu suggested that no one should be referred to China for transplants if they don't have clear documentation of where the donor is coming from. For Lu, making change requires awareness.
"We think people should try their best to tell their neighbors, to tell their elected representatives and talk to proper officials ... to organize and to demand an international investigation to all Chinese labor camps and to all Chinese transplant hospitals and to do a full independent investigation," Lu says. "It's the only way we can stop this kind of killing."
Lu has not been to China since 2000 and believes she is on the government's "blacklist." She might not be able to return to China, but this hasn't deterred her from her campaign. As she said at the press conference, those who have freedom must not stop to protect those who do not.
"Those of us who enjoy freedom of belief in democratic countries must feel a responsibility towards those who live under the oppressive tyranny of the Chinese communist regime," Lu said. "Those who sleep soundly in an environment of liberty must remember those who go sleepless knowing that at any moment they or their loved ones may be killed for their organs simply because of their spiritual beliefs.
"We are their hope — their only hope against a system that murders for profit. Unless those in the free world raise their voices against this horror, countless men, women and children will be slaughtered by a medical establishment gone mad in China." ©