“A Darkly Sinister Accusation” by Ethan Gutmann
– FOR THE RECORD –
Response to “China used to harvest organs from prisoners. Under pressure, that practice is finally ending” by Simon Denyer of the Washington Post (September 14, 2017). View joint letters and correspondence from the Washington Post here
Back when I was working in Beijing TV, I used to flippantly say to my Chinese co-workers that if it’s a politically sensitive topic, simply reverse the Chinese headline to get the true story. Of course, it’s subtler than that; if the Chinese media reports that Chinese naval assets are bringing piracy in the South China Sea under control (I actually remember such a headline back in 1999) it didn’t mean that piracy was wildly out of control or that pirates existed at all. It meant that Beijing had ordered the Chinese news media to gin up support for a Chinese naval campaign against piracy, which, en passant, created a pretext for Chinese military expansion into the South China Sea.
Now, my characterization of the Chinese media isn’t particularly original, but it should strike a chord with any person who has spent a few years working in China: News is not news. News serves a state campaign.
The guiding principle is that the Chinese Communist Party always wins; therefore, the news – about China anyway – is usually pretty good. The exception comes in when the Chinese Communist Party attacks foreign enemies – then the public can expect a parade of vivid Chinese defeats and humiliations. Internal enemies require a more personal approach. For example, the televised campaign against Falun Gong began with a ritual right out of the Cultural Revolution – widowed spouses breaking down in bitter tears at neatly-timed intervals.
Thus, to rout internal enemies, the Chinese media is permitted to briefly expose unsavory elements within the Mainland (such as the anti-corruption campaigns that exposed malfeasance at the highest levels while simultaneously crushing President Xi Jinping’s competitors). But entrenched Party corruption, failures, or mass murder? By the time any of these elements surface, they are already “in the past” and a State campaign has put things right.
When it came to the organ harvesting of innocents in China, the Chinese media traditionally followed the pretty-good-news-principle, i.e. simply ignore the whole thing. The late Harry Wu, as the grandfather of the forced organ harvesting issue in Washington DC, arranged with Congress for a credible Chinese physician to testify on the sourcing of organs from condemned criminals as early as 2001. While the testimony did not lead to sustained action from the global medical community, in part because surgeons with China contacts – certainly any surgeon in Taiwan, such as Dr. Ko Wen-je – the testimony confirmed what they had already suspected: Death-row prisoners were the source of Chinese organ transplants, even if Beijing did not care to officially acknowledge it. Yet the real inner workings of the Chinese transplant establishment were increasingly exposed. Chinese transplant activity was growing exponentially, foreign organ tourists were flooding into China, and hospitals offering fresh Falun Gong organs were beginning to slip up – as Dr. Ko’s testimony clearly shows – and questions were being asked. When the first accounts of Falun Gong being harvested began to emerge in the Epoch Times at the end of 2005, and was quickly followed by the seminal investigative report Bloody Harvest by David Kilgour and David Matas in the Summer of 2006, the hour of maximum danger to the Party had arrived.
My investigation was published in 2014. Through a series of interviews with doctors, refugees, and law enforcement personnel, I was able to establish a basic narrative: Organ harvesting of political and religious victims began with the Uyghurs in 1997, began ramping up for Falun Gong in late 2000, and was targeting Tibetans and select House Christians for their organs by 2003. By 2005, Beijing grasped that the Falun Gong harvesting issue was particularly explosive; Tibetans and the Uyghurs had at least a handful of violent activists associated with their freedom movements. Yet not a single Falun Gong practitioner had ever committed a crime which could justify a death-sentence, even under the distorted Chinese legal system and the scale of Falun Gong disappearances was too great to claim that any harvesting was simply the work of rogue hospitals or organized crime. So in 2005, liver surgeon Huang Jiefu, the “health official” that Simon Denyer refers to so glowingly in the first paragraph of his article, made a calculated admission in an international conference that China was, in fact, using condemned prisoners as organ sources.
Credit where it is due; Huang Jiefu surely must have recognized that he was taking a personal risk, yet unlike most of his colleagues who had less experience abroad, he not only grasped the danger to the Chinese state of continuing such an unethical policy but he also appears to have had an instinctual sense of how to game Western moral logic (including our inherent fecklessness when it comes to human rights). The sin, once confessed, garnered minimal international blowback, and the Chinese medical establishment began to understand the full value of copping to a human rights misdemeanor (i.e. harvesting condemned criminals) – rather than a full-scale crime against humanity – (i.e. harvesting Falun Gong and other prisoners of conscience). In short, the driving force behind China’s need to trumpet medical reform, and the drive to win Western approval from groups such as The Transplantation Society (TTS), and the TTS leadership subsequently playing to part – all that theater – was to deflect an issue that Beijing could not acknowledge and most of the world didn’t particularly want to acknowledge either – the mass killing of innocents, particularly Falun Gong.
Yet Beijing didn’t want to actually end the mass killing. Hardcore Falun Gong practitioners couldn’t be released alive; they knew way too much. Age, attrition, and time – these factors alone could spade over large portions of the Party’s mass grave, but the transplant apparatus, the money-machine, was very much in place. And it was hungry. Unfortunately for Beijing, it also talked: evidentiary trails – Internet caches from hospitals across China’s provinces – lay there exposed for those with the skill, and above all, the patience, to track them. Halfway through 2016, Kilgour, Matas and I published a 700-page update to our books. With 2300 footnotes, over 90% pointing directly to mainland sources, we presented exhaustive evidence that China’s transplant volume was 6 to 10 times higher than the Chinese medical claim of approximately 10,000 transplants per year. The overall picture was of an industrial scale, state-directed organ transplantation network, controlled through national policies and funding, and implicating both the military and civilian healthcare systems not just in the execution of death-row prisoners but in illicit killing of innocent religious and political dissidents. While the Chinese claimed that they had stopped harvesting prisoners in January 2015, we found a robust and confident industry: new transplant wings constructed with no concern over organ sourcing. A growing number of emergency liver transplants dependent on a vast stable of living tissue-typed human beings.
Even the voluntary organ donation centers which had been set up in China’s major cities turned out to be a public relations mirage. Our researchers were instructed to call them every day. Most centers would not pick up for weeks at a time. When a donation representative finally answered, they would often admit that the number of volunteers to become organ donors was “five” or perhaps “three” – out of a city of millions.
Six weeks of vetting by three of the toughest researchers from the Chinese mainland who have ever worked on Capitol Hill followed, and the House of Representatives passed Resolution 343 explicitly condemning China for murdering prisoners of conscience for their organs. The European Parliament followed suit two weeks later. Closer to my home in London, our report helped to spark numerous hearings and debates in the UK House of Commons, several Early Day Motions, and two reports by the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission.
Western press coverage was widespread of our report, yet the best stories were written by Beijing-based reporters: Nathan Vaderklippe’s critical analysis in the Globe and Mail (here), and Didi Kirsten Tatlow’s careful, measured, yet relentless coverage in the New York Times (here, here, here, here, here, and here). When three Chinese attempts to hold global conferences, which would ratify the Chinese medical establishment’s claims to have reformed the system received a mixed reception at best (the Pope cancelled an audience with participants at an organ harvesting conference hosted by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences to avoid controversy), the Chinese finally dropped the ignore-it-all strategy.
With the financial backing of billionaire Li Ka-shing, the Chinese medical establishment began to not only establish friendly contacts with Western transplant experts, but also to place them in front of the state-run media. Most of these experts – I am speaking here of Dr. Francis Delmonico, Dr. Phillip O’Connell, and Dr. Jeremy Chapman – were accomplished transplant specialists who were well versed in the issues of global transplant abuses so their initial contact with Huang Jiefu was made with the best of intentions, to reform China’s medical system from the inside. With light China experience and even less experience in human rights, they found themselves going along with their Chinese hosts don’t-mention-the Falun-Gong imperative. Yet they also had a tendency to blurt out uncomfortable truths – Delmonico, speaking under oath to a Foreign Affairs Committee hearing, admitted that the TTS had no ability to verify medical reform in China because the TTS had no access to the Chinese military hospitals. Chapman, under fire in his Sydney home base over Westmead Hospital’s sketchy relationship with a Mainland transplant hospital briefly called for an ending all Australian organ tourism to China – and, in his disgust with the Chinese media for misquoting him and other Western doctors, sent caustic private messages to his Chinese colleagues. Finally, there was O’Connell’s own account to the New York Times of how he addressed Chinese presenters at a 2016 international organ transplant conference in Hong Kong:
“It is important that you understand that the global community is appalled by the practices that the Chinese have adhered to in the past…As a result of those practices, the Chinese transplant centers have allowed a trenchant political opposition to their government to prosper.”
While I might not agree with O’Connell’s phrasing, the “trenchant political opposition” that he refers to here admittedly includes the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, the House of representatives and the European Parliament as well as more non-partisan groups like End Organ Pillaging (EOP) and Doctors Against Forced Organ Harvesting (DAFOH). O’Connell had legitimate reason to bring up the opposition, yet given O’Connell’s phrasing which implicitly seems to accept all of the Mainland rules (Falun Gong has never been harvested, etc.) it’s quite possible to interpret his statement – and David Matas unpacks it brilliantly here – as O’Connell trying to act as a consultant to the Chinese Communist Party, and simply laying down a little tough love for his Chinese clients. David Matas thinks that Beijing may have liked the statement, yet my experience as a Beijing consultant leads me to disagree; friendly intentions go a long way in the West, but Beijing is hardcore; the transplant experts had, however inadvertently, shown that when it came to message discipline, they were unreliable.
Campbell Fraser is a lecturer at Griffith Business School in Brisbane who claimed to have both transplant and China experience and had done a smattering of investigation on transplant abuse in developing countries, although he had not published anything on organ harvesting until late 2016. Not having a published record to defend allowed Campbell to cultivate a posture of educated familiarity with China’s vast medical system in front of the Chinese press, bolstering his surgical hosts, and offering up soundbites to China Central Television about the highly politically diverse individuals associated with End Organ Pillaging: “Clearly they are using the so-called organ harvesting to procure a particular political objective. And therefore myself and the transplant community just find we can not trust figures that are clearly being used for political purposes.” Fraser also lashed out at China’s favorite whipping post; routinely referring to Falun Gong as an “an evil religious organization” or a “cult,” Fraser told Xinhua that Falun Gong had not only “falsified data” but personally threatened him, and had tried to suppress others as well: “I have spoken to other colleagues who are continuously getting the harassment. They are crying. They are upset.”
Whether those tears were particularly bitter or not, I did not respond to attacks published in the Chinese media and neither did my colleagues. Responding to the Chinese media does not generally lead to a dialogue. It is not that we cannot change anyone’s mind in China. In fact, we have. But we cannot change China’s media. Having worked inside the Chinese propaganda industry for a year, I was always aware that the most intelligent producers – a bit like Winston Smith’s colleague Syme who loved destroying words for the 11th edition of the Newspeak dictionary – knew perfectly well that they were constructing blinders for the masses. Propaganda, not persuasion, is the reigning currency, and the greater the mistruth or distortion that the public is being force-fed, the more bravura the execution, the higher the value. And what is curious about Simon Denyer’s article is that while it appears in the Washington Post, it follows the Chinese state-run media formula.
It’s not even a true hybrid. Yes, there are vestigial reminders of good old Washington Post reportage: for example, the admission that Huang Jiefu hasn’t been consistent in his views of whether criminals should be harvested or not, but the overall impression is of a sophisticated Mainland newspaper, employing selective use of quotations, a cavalier approach to the facts, and phrases describing our research that, as a Washington Post reader for 40-odd years, I find astonishing: “lurid allegations” and “a darkly sinister accusation.” I’ll address the facts, but I am going to spend a little time on Denyer’s first lines because this is where I had the uncanny sensation that I was back in my Beijing office, reading China Daily:
“China’s organ-transplant system was once a cause of international scorn and outrage, as doctors harvested organs from prisoners condemned to death by criminal courts and transplanted them into patients who often paid dearly for the privilege. After years of denials, China now acknowledges that history and has declared that the practice no longer occurs — largely thanks to the perseverance of a health official who, with the quiet backing of an American transplant surgeon, turned the system around over the span of a decade.”
With a single word in the first line – “once” – Denyer transforms a promising news article into a Party trope: The resolution of a successful campaign. The unsavory element that China has overcome? “doctors harvested organs from prisoners condemned to death by criminal courts.” This is precisely the Chinese Communist Party snare that I warned against in my testimony to the Foreign Affairs Committee in June 2016:
“Fatally exposed, the Chinese medical establishment promised to move to voluntary sourcing…but wrapped it in a semantic trick: The phrase ‘end organ harvesting of prisoners’ was acceptable. The phrase ‘end organ harvesting of prisoners of conscience’ was unacceptable. Thus the Chinese could avoid speaking about a vast captive population that doesn’t officially exist, while the acceptable phrase allowed Westerners to hope that ‘prisoners of conscience’ was just a subset of ‘prisoners’. By avoiding the taboo phrase, both sides could maintain their illusions.”
Thus, Denyer begins by cloaking the reason that he is writing the article in the first place, and then doubles down on the phrase: “China now acknowledges that history,” thus declaring that the entire investigation into prisoners of conscience – all the recipients of physical tests in labor camp, all the medical personnel interviewed, all the numerical discrepancies – was nothing more than an elaborate, perverse hoax. Yet our collective work was not based on anonymous sources: As the Congressional Chinese researchers quickly grasped in their vetting process, it is footnoted and replicable. We recorded our interviews in the field and, when not fully transcribed, the recordings have been freely offered to government agencies, human rights NGOs, and serious reporters. In the few cases where an interview was not recorded, such as the highly sensitive interview with Dr. Ko Wen-je in Taipei, the write-up was explicitly signed off on by the subject not just once, but several times before publication. So yes, we have produced a massive body of work over the last decade, but it’s actually quite selective – we could easily fill a massive report with discarded interviews, biased numerical representations and leads that didn’t check out. As David Matas wrote to the Washington Post:
“The evidence of mass killings of prisoners of conscience for their organs in China, primarily practitioners of the spiritually based set of exercises Falun Gong, is vast, detailed, verifiable and verified by independent researchers. Unverifiable assertions to the contrary, even if they take the form of numbers, are no answer to this large volume of hard and incontestable evidence.”
The stakes of China getting the history right are high: In my twenty years of China analysis, it is my deepest belief that the Party’s failure to deal with history, particularly its human rights abuses, its refusal to offer restitutions, apologies, its censorship of discussion, ranging from the Cultural Revolution to Tiananmen to the repression of Falun Gong – these are the main impediments to China advancing as a democracy. Yet my feeling goes deeper still. My father was Jewish. As a sailor in Europe after the Second World War, he helped rescue orphaned Jewish children coming out of the death-camps. If I know anything about genocide at all, it is that victim groups are not just entitled to survival and a home of some sort, but to a history.
Indeed, the world is entitled to that history as well – and must learn from it. As David Matas has pointed out: The history of the Holocaust created the field of human rights. And Falun Gong, Uyghurs, Tibetans, “Eastern Lightning” House Christians? No matter how much smaller the scale of death than the Holocaust, these things happened – in peacetime, no less – and indeed, they are likely happening now, and the world must learn from that too. By invoking history, Denyer is actually negating it in favor of Huang Jiefu’s specific need to say to the Chinese press that a State campaign has put things right:
“So, we shouldn’t always dwell in the past, always concerned about the page of death row inmates. Flip over the page and look at the future….We should pay attention to the future, not the past.”
What is strange and unnecessary about this approach is the missed opportunity – the journalistic road not taken. Can you imagine the article that Denyer might have produced if he had limited himself to simply trying to fit together the puzzle of how the Chinese medical system has developed over the last year? Two statements out of the next paragraphs demonstrate that Denyer had the possibility of a biased but still reasonable article in hand, simply by making the claim that China had reformed dramatically over the past year:
“[According to Huang Jiefu, voluntary] donors can sign up through a link and app available through the ubiquitous Alipay online payment system. More than 230,000 people have done so”
“There has been a substantial change in China which has been in the right direction,” said Jeremy Chapman”
I take these statements seriously but for two different reasons. Let me unpack that, starting with Chapman.
Chapman does not lie. He may make mistakes, but he prides himself on being a straight-shooter – with me, everyone else, and especially, with the Chinese. So, although I have no idea from what context Denyer plucked the quote, if Chapman appears to be seeing something, we should take that seriously.
Huang Jiefu lies. Even Denyer acknowledges as much: “Huang himself was quoted in Chinese media in late 2014 and early 2015 as saying prisoners could “voluntarily” donate organs” (while neglecting to report the critical point – Huang was saying the exact opposite to the international press at the time). Indeed, Huang has vested interests, and a history – 5000 liver transplants plus experimental operations on prisoners under his belt – to protect. Yet I take Huang seriously too, for a common-sense reason: China lost the argument in 2016. Rationality would dictate that the Chinese medical establishment would reform its transplant system – and do so quickly.
Yet we have two pieces of countervailing evidence.
The first is a recent report by the World Organization to Investigate the Persecution of Falun Gong (WOIPFG). It needs editing, and it is a slog to get through, so let me summarize it: WOIPFG made a lot of phone calls to hospitals across China. Posing in various phone-guises, they were able to garner two patterns on the current status of China’s transplant system: 1) There is no sign of a diminution of organ transplant volume on the local level and 2) The Chinese hospital administrative staff will not speak about organ sourcing. They will even explain that they are under strict orders not to speak about organ sourcing, but they will not discuss it. Anyone looking over the transcripts – transcripts which clearly show consistency both in volume and secrecy over sourcing – must ask the question: is this the profile of a system flooded with voluntary organ donations?
The second piece of evidence comes from Human Rights Watch: A comprehensive blood and DNA testing regime (first used on Falun Gong several years ago) was unveiled over the last year. It’s aimed at every man, woman and child in Xinjiang, but it’s especially clear that it’s aimed at those of Uyghur ethnicity. Chinese authorities recently indicated testing was 90% complete. There may be several uses for the DNA samples and blood tests, including surveillance. But it is also compatible with tissue matching and 15 million Uyghurs are already at risk.
So are the Chinese reforming? Well, “trust but verify” as President Reagan used to say. But how can we – or the TTS, the WTO, or the Vatican – verify reform when the Chinese do not allow anything resembling a true verification regime? To quote Fraser: “we can not trust figures that are clearly being used for political purposes” and he’s dead right on that point.
As I have discussed the phrase “a darkly sinister accusation” at some length, I can process the remainder of Denyer’s article using a bullet point format (with bolding added for emphasis):
“Just last year, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution condemning ‘state-sanctioned forced organ harvesting’ in China, and accusing the Communist Party of killing prisoners of conscience — held in secret, outside the usual criminal prisons — to feed the transplant industry.”
- Emphasis added. This is a minor point, but the Washington Post is supposed to be about minor points: Until 2006, it was not that secret and yes, normal criminal prisons were involved. To quote my witness, Yu Xinhui on page 248:
“Yu is in his thirties, the picture of robust health. While in prison, he was tested repeatedly, finally graduating to an “organs only” exam under military supervision in 2005. Yu makes a good show of indulging my questions, but to him it was never a big mystery: “There was common knowledge of organ harvesting in the prison. . . Even before you die, your organs are already reserved.” Criminal prisoners would taunt the practitioners: “If you don’t do what we say we’ll torture you to death and sell your organs.” That sounds like a stupid game, but everyone knew there was a real list: prisoners and practitioners alike would be taken away on an annual schedule. Yu knew which month the buses would arrive and where they would park in the courtyard. He gave me a tour of the exact spot on Google Earth.”
“‘Financial interests were driving malpractice,’ Huang said. ‘The allocation of organs had become a game of wealth and power, with no social justice.’”
- Huang is trying to cop a lesser plea again (in this case, Chinese financial interests) for what is actually state-sponsored murder; the evidence from Xinjiang in the 1990s demonstrates quite clearly that it was the Party’s inclination to kill state enemies by altering the medical rules that created the financial opening, not the other way around.
“Huang’s efforts to clean up the system, with the quiet backing of University of Chicago transplant surgeon Michael Millis, surmounted stiff resistance — and met with skepticism and sometimes lurid allegations that continue to dog their work.”
- According to Matthew Robertson, Michael Millis has a significant conflict of interests which Denyer might have reported on. As for “lurid allegations,” Dr. Enver Tohti admits to have cut a liver out of a living human being and his detailed description of doing so (pp. 17 – 19) could, I suppose, be interpreted as “lurid,” although his confession is also public.
“China had more than 600 organ transplant centers in a sprawling, unregulated system. That number was whittled down to about 160 registered and approved centers in 2007, when legislation was also introduced to outlaw organ trafficking and ban foreigners from coming to the country to receive Chinese organs.”
- Instead of “whittled down,” we think that “rationalization” more accurately captures what actually happened to registered transplant centers. As for the foreigner ban – while there are many accounts of foreign organ tourism in our work, Denyer appears to be oblivious to 3rd party accounts as well: a best-selling comedic account of an American going to China to receive a kidney with no trouble from Chinese authorities was published in 2009, while a branch of Tianjin Central Hospital’s transplant operations was blatantly advertising its foreign patient services on the Internet in English until 2014, and a recent South Korean documentary showing that the flow of foreign patients to China has not been seriously interrupted.
“The basis for this allegation is research compiled over many years by David Matas, a Canadian human rights lawyer, David Kilgour, a former Canadian politician, and Ethan Gutmann, a journalist, who assert that China is secretly carrying out 60,000 to 100,000 organ transplants a year, mostly with organs taken from Falun Gong practitioners held in secret detention since a crackdown on the movement in 1999. But research and reporting by The Washington Post undercut these allegations…Data compiled by Quintiles IMS, an American health-care-information company, and supplied to The Post, shows China’s share of global demand for immunosuppressants is roughly in line with the proportion of the world’s transplants China says it carries out.”
- Denyer tries to base his dramatic statement – “research and reporting by The Washington Post undercut these allegations” – on a secret database. Unfortunately for Denyer, it’s not actually that secret; the database actually shows Japan (about 2000 transplants a year) beating China (about 10,000 transplants a year) in transplant volume just a few years ago. That’s ludicrous. EOP colleagues who are far closer to the coalface than I explain the issue to the Washington Post here and here.
“Xu Jiapeng, an account manager at Quintiles IMS in Beijing, said the data included Chinese generic drugs. It was “unthinkable,” he said, that China was operating a clandestine system that the data did not pick up.”
- When it comes to anti-rejection drugs, the vast majority of Chinese patients do not pay for Western imports, a fact that pharma companies and Congressional investigators have known about and commented on [here] for some time now. When I lived in China, I didn’t pay for legally imported Western drugs. I favored cheap Chinese knock-offs as most Chinese people do. The claim that all these drugs are accounted for is as improbable as the idea that counterfeit software or movies in China could be captured accurately by a survey firm.
“Critics counter that China may also be secretly serving large numbers of foreign transplant tourists…”
- In terms of immunosuppressant volume, I have never made this argument and offhand, I can’t think of anyone who has, so I am going to label this as a straw-man argument
“Chapman and Millis say it is ‘not plausible’ that China could be doing many times more transplants than, for instance, the United States, where about 24,000 transplants take place every year, without that information leaking out as it did when China used condemned prisoners’ organs.”
- Although it wasn’t a calculated admission (such as Huang Jiefu’s admission that China was using prisoner organs) that information has leaked out. Denyer, Chapman, and Millis simply need to sit down and read the evidence.
“I have never heard of organs being taken from live prisoners,” said Liang Xiaojun, who said he had defended 300 to 400 Falun Gong practitioners in civil cases and knew of only three or four deaths in prison.”
- While Beijing arrests lawyers on a routine basis, Denyer approaches a lawyer who represents Falun Gong clients, and asks him about the most controversial issue in China – the organ harvesting of Falun Gong – and then, reports the answer to the reading public with a straight face.
“In China, despite state repression, family members can be determined in speaking out and seeking justice when relatives vanish.”
- That was true back in the first years of the Falun Gong repression. After severe consequences to family members followed, it was no longer true.
“If tens of thousands of Falun Gong practitioners were being executed every year, that information would emerge, experts say.”
- It is germane that Denyer is not a veteran China reporter. He was previously in New Delhi, and I hear that he’s moving to Japan soon. It is also relevant that reporting is a competitive business and the demands of the modern paying audience haven’t progressed all that much from a child building a tower of blocks; once constructed, the usual action is not to bolster the foundations, but to go for the quick thrill of knocking it down. To stay in business that’s quite often the press cycle too, and it happens to conform to Simon Denyer’s modus operandi as a reporter. Females aborted? China has a gaping gender imbalance? No, no, new Chinese statistics say otherwise. Never mind that one-child policy; that’s all in the past (or perhaps not). There’s nothing inherently wrong with Denyer’s propensity toward de-bunking – actually it is a quality I share with him – yet I do believe it’s kind of a tradition in the news business to actually name experts rather than to use the phrase “experts say.” I suspect the reason that no experts are named here is because this is Simon Denyer’s own opinion. He made the same point to me over the phone when we spoke: Why haven’t I heard about this? Why hasn’t anyone come to me personally? I remember my mouth falling agape at his obliviousness – to the long, relentless, and violent suppression of Falun Gong, Tibetan, and Uyghur activists, his inability to grasp the long arm of Chinese surveillance, his disregard of the fact that dissidents have families that they want to protect, just as we do. I don’t like to break confidence; you can say anything you like over the phone to me when you are considering a story, and I respect that thinking aloud process but there is no getting around the ultimate product: this is a phrase one really shouldn’t find in a Washington Post article and the responsibility falls on the editors for allowing it to run at all.
“A U.S. congressional commission on China, the State Department and the Falun Gong community website have separately tried to estimate the number of political prisoners in China, and the figures range from 1,397 to “tens of thousands” — and even that upper number is significantly lower than the 500,000 to 1 million claimed by Gutmann and others.”
- The actual appendix (pp. 317-322 of The Slaughter) that Denyer is quoting looks like this:
A SURVEY-BASED ESTIMATE OF FALUN GONG HARVESTED FROM 2000 TO 2008
If you are looking at this in another format, those words are in 24 point font, bolded. Hard to miss. In other words, Denyer is quoting (or actually misquoting, as the lower number is actually 450,000) a historical estimate looking at a time period nine years ago. (If I had to guess, I expect those numbers would be 33% of what they were now, but that’s simply personal conjecture). At any rate, my methods were transparent. My Falun Gong incarceration estimates work off the Laogai Research Foundation – an institution with far more reliable evidence on incarceration volume than the State department in this area – which estimated a “Laogai System”: Labor camps, detention centers, psychiatric institutions, drug rehabilitation centers and black jails of 3 to 5 million people. Denyer claims that a “Falun Gong community website” has lower incarceration estimates than my own. However, I could not find a “Falun Gong community website” on the Internet. Or perhaps I should ask: Which one? Because there are at least four that I know of. Anyway, the last time I checked, one of the most respected and active Falun Gong website, WOIPFG, was estimating several million Falun Gong in custody.
“The symbolic focal point of China’s organ transplant industry is the Oriental Organ Transplant Center, a gleaming 14-story building in the northeastern city of Tianjin that is the largest of its kind in Asia.
In the lobby, a sleek promotional video advertises the center’s expertise in supplying livers, lungs, hearts and pancreases to save thousands of lives every year….On a recent visit, a handful of patients from Pakistan, Libya and the Middle East were observed in transplant wards. Two Pakistani families said they had brought their own donors with them, although one admitted that the donor was not related to the recipient, in breach of Chinese law….Wei Guoxin, public relations director at Tianjin First Center Hospital, which runs the transplant center, said accusations that China used organs from Falun Gong practitioners were “ridiculous” and part of a conspiracy against the country. But she did not respond to subsequent requests for data on the transplants carried out at the center or the number of foreign patients served.”
- The Washington Post returns: the illegal foreigner at Tianjin Central hospital, the lack of follow-up on transplant numbers from the medical administrators – these are noted. In fact, these two facts alone so severely undercut Denyer’s original intent in being in that hospital at all – to prove that what we, and most notably, Matthew Robertson identified (and thus forewarning the Tianjin Central Hospital staff in no uncertain terms to clean up) as murder ground zero is now a squeaky-clean hospital or always was – that I suspect that a Washington Post editor shoehorned those points back in.
“…She had imagined holding her mother’s hand when the life support system was turned off, but the need to swiftly remove her organs made that impossible…“While I waited downstairs in the hospital for my mother to die, I felt huge love,” she said.”
- Language differences, cultural differences, but even in China: schmaltz is schmaltz.
Ultimately Denyer’s article had minimal impact. Those Westerners invested in taking a positive view of the Chinese medical establishment seized upon the article as a fig leaf, never mind any doubts about errors in Denyer’s immunosuppressive calculations. Yet those Westerners had never actually examined our evidence, so it’s far from clear that they were persuadable in the first place. Many subscribe to a sort of fatalism about China; all evidence – even that the Chinese establishment allowed Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Liu Xiabao to die from medical neglect in front of the entire world in July 2017 – is secondary to the big picture – the inevitability of China’s rise. Engagement with China then, no matter what preconditions Beijing may demand, is the arc of history, the only true path. We can only speculate what is in Pope Francis’ mind, but, perhaps based on his South American experience, a place where Communist thugs are bribed with liberation theology – and Communist dissidents may actually seem heroic from time to time (an experience light years away from say, Pope John Paul ii’s experience in Eastern Europe) – he too seems to be in the market for a deal with China. The fact that the legacy of Chinese organ harvesting has stood in his way this long can even be seen as a minor victory. Go back to the aftermath of the Holocaust; a people does not just need an end to persecution and a place to live, they need a history. And in this new Dark Age of moral relativism, perhaps the best we can do is build the sort of remarkable coalition of legal and medical experts that has converged to support End Organ Pillaging over the last 18 months, hold Mother History’s hand, and wait for the best to transpire. Is that fatalism? Perhaps, yet I don’t think that Beijing should rest easy; as more experts join the cause, the safer it will be for whistleblowers from the East to emerge from the shadows, while the extensive coverage by the New York Times has similarly ensured a “safe space” for historical research. And I suspect that historians will be writing about the forced organ harvesting of prisoners – including religious and political dissidents – in China for many years to come.
A brief postscript.
When I asked Didi Kirsten Tatlow about the New York Times legacy – her personal legacy, really – she wondered aloud if her writing had really changed the historical debate on the prisoners of conscience issue significantly, if at all. I felt a sort of déjà vu wash over me when she said this. Although it may not look like it from the outside – in public, I am an author trying to sell books after all – in private, I am second to none when it comes to ultimately thinking of my own work, and its impact on the world, as a failure. All I could say to her in reply, was the same thing that any Uyghur or Falun Gong practitioner has ever said to me: It looks different in the trenches.
So I want to close with Tatlow’s remarks about journalism and the process, because she really does show us how it is done – in one of the most toxic press environments in the world, as a correspondent for the New York Time, perhaps the only newspaper in the world that Beijing truly fears. So I have chosen a few excerpts of a public conversation we had on her Facebook page, in reaction to a post where I thanked her for writing “Angry Claims and Furious Denials Over Organ Transplants in China,” on August 24, 2016. It may be germane that Tatlow made the comments after she finally left China and returned to her native Germany:
On the New York Times:
“I had tons of pushback along the lines of “what’s new here?” And yet it was never properly reported in the first place, nor any of the bigger issues explored… My own path into the issue was not ideological, but rather observational — I wrote about organ wastage due to transport difficulties (traffic jams, uncooperative airlines) and followed the threads. They’re still untied of course.”
On the evidence of forced organ harvesting:
“…there are very few non-Chinese who understand what’s going on but when you personally hear Chinese transplant surgeons discuss the use of prisoner of conscience organs for transplant, and the government says “it’s OK to report on the illegal organ trade just be sure you’re clear that Xi Jinping is going to crush it” — you have to believe your ears…”
On Western media:
“Overall, the media is deeply contradictory. Far too often their work method is not deductive, but inductive. Start with your assumptions and particular culture and write from that…”
“I followed my conscience without fear or favor and did what I could under the political and institutional circumstances, and sadly it wasn’t much, though I tried and pushed for much more.”
These are good words, honest words. They rinse the palate of “a darkly sinister accusation” and remind us – all of us – to avoid following an agenda or a formula, Chinese state-run or otherwise. Instead, we must continue to follow the threads, without fear or favor, wherever they lead – and to push for much more.