The Ethnic Dimension of the Killing of Falun Gong for their Organs
by David Matas for International Academic Forum, Kobe, Japan 3 June 2018
I want to talk about the ethnic dimension of the killing of Falun Gong for their organs. Before I do that, I need to give some background.
Falun Gong is a set of exercises with a spiritual foundation begun in 1992 in China by teacher Li Hongzhi and repressed by Communist Party policy in 1999. It is the Chinese equivalent of yoga. It is a blending and updating of the Chinese Buddhist and Taoist spiritual traditions and the Chinese qigong exercise traditions. It was repressed without being legally banned because of its popularity and the fear it generated within the Communist Party of its continuing ideological supremacy.
Practitioners of Falun Gong protested the Party repression decision, taken aback that the Party could ban a peaceful, non-political set of exercises and thinking it must be a mistake or misunderstanding. Protesters were arrested in the hundreds of thousands. Those who recanted were released. Those who did not recant were tortured. If they recanted after torture, they too were released. Those who did not recant after torture were arbitrarily and indefinitely detained. They disappeared into the Chinese gulag.
The Party was determined to eradicate Falun Gong by any means, including mass murder. One of the eradication policies directed against Falun Gong was exactly that, what the Party euphemistically called “eliminating them physically”. Shortly after the mass detention of Falun Gong and the policy of mass murder was adopted and promulgated, transplant volumes in China shot way up.
It took a few years for outsiders to realize what was going on. But David Kilgour and I, in a report produced first in 2006 and in book form in 2009, bother under the title Bloody Harvest, concluded that this policy of physical elimination of Falun Gong took the form of mass murder through organ extraction. The Party monetized the bodies of Falun Gong practitioners, making billions for the health system.
The killing of prisoners for their organs has not been uniquely focused on Falun Gong. It has included prisoners sentenced to death, a source the Party has openly acknowledged. It also has included other prisoners of conscience – Uighurs, Tibetans, and House Christians, mostly, but not only Eastern Lightning. The sourcing of organs from Uighurs predates the repression of Falun Gong. Ethan Gutmann, a journalist who did his own work in this area, published a book called The Slaughter where he sets out the evidence about these other prisoner of conscience victims.
The ethnic dimension of Uighur and Tibetan victimization is obvious. The ethnic dimension of the persecution of Falun Gong in China is not so obvious. Practitioners of Falun Gong in China are almost entirely Han Chinese. The killing of Falun Gong for their organs is the killing of some, many Han Chinese by other Han Chinese.
Moreover, the ideology behind the killings, Communism is itself not an ethnic ideology. On the contrary, it is meant to be global in scope, appealing to everyone, everywhere. Its identified enemies, at least initially, were the bourgeoisie, the capitalists, the economic exploiters.
Nonetheless, this victimization of practitioners of Falun Gong by the Chinese Communist Party does have an ethnic dimension. To appreciate that this is so, one has to pay attention to the particularities of Chinese Communist Party ideology.
There are many repressed populations in China. Yet, the only ones that have been targeted for killing through organ extraction are spiritual communities. Why is that so?
One reason is the numbers. The Falun Gong community in detention in particular is so large that they have presented an almost inexhaustible supply of organs. They have represented on their own about half of the total population in Chinese arbitrary detention.
In the joint update that David Kilgour, Ethan Gutmann and I did in June 2016, we estimated that China is transplanting up to 100,000 organs a year. There is no other explanation for this vast supply of organs than sourcing of prisoners of conscience in general and Falun Gong in particular.
The Government of China has no answer to our figures; they just say that we got our numbers wrong. Yet our figures come from official sources, the simple addition hospital by hospital of the transplants that these hospitals, in a variety of different ways, have said that they have performed.
When China shifted from socialism to capitalism, the Government withdrew funding from the health system. Replacement funding came from the selling of organs for transplants. It was the sale of organs that kept the doors of hospitals open and health professionals employed. The selling of organs is a drug to which the Chinese health system has become addicted.
A second reason for the targeting of spiritual communities in general and Falun Gong in particular for organ harvesting is the extreme vilification to which non-approved religions and spiritual beliefs are subject. This vilification led to demonization and depersonalization of the populations. Prison guards, health officials and health professionals felt that they could do what they wanted with these populations, that these victims were not really people.
We can see this from the extreme propaganda directed against these groups. We can also hear this from those who got out of prison and out of China. They tell us not only how horribly they have been treated but also the non-human manner in which their victimizers view them.
The third reason for the organ harvesting victimization of spiritual communities in general and Falun Gong in particular is the linkage that Party sees between religious movements and foreign domination. The Party view of that linkage requires some explanation.
Nationalism is more for the Chinese Communist Party than an ideology of convenience. It is embedded into its DNA. the Chinese Communist Party was formed in 1921 by leaders of the May 4th movement, which protested the Treaty of Versailles’ transfer of Chinese territory to Japan. Liu Kang, a professor of Chinese cultural studies at Duke University, has said
“The current Chinese communist government is more a product of nationalism than a product of ideology like Marxism and Communism,”
For the Chinese Communist Party, it is not nationalism which is an ideology of convenience. It is rather communism. Indeed, although the Party still calls itself communist, it has abandoned communism in favour of capitalism. China expert Peter Hays Gries has written that, with the abandonment of communist ideology, the Party “is increasingly dependent upon its nationalist credentials to rule”.
Ethno-nationalism has become a flag which the Party wraps around itself. Chinese ethno-nationalism has become for the Party both a sword and a shield. It is a weapon of attack against its victimized populations as well as a justification for immunity.
The Party often tries to don the cloak of ethnic nationalism. Typically, when the Party is criticized internationally, the response of the Party is that the critic is anti-China. The Party accuses of the critic of racist sentiment.
That is certainly a critique I have faced. One of the many frivolous arguments made against our research on organ transplant abuse in China is that we are anti-China. It should seem obvious that, if I were really anti-Chinese, I would be indifferent to some Chinese killing other Chinese. However, I do not want so much point out how silly the Party response is as the fact that it is made. The Party sees itself as China or, at least, pretends that it is China.
Understanding what the Chinese Communist Party says requires adopting a Chinese Communist Party perspective. The primary audience for the Chinese Communist Party, understandably, is the Chinese. What foreigners may think of what they Party says is a secondary consideration. Something which to a foreigner may seem nonsensical or just strange may well resonate with a local Chinese population.
That is so with the anti-China accusations which the Chinese Communist Party throws around so liberally to defend against criticism of its own behaviour. Outsiders can easily see the difference between China and the Chinese Communist Party. For insiders, the difference may not be so clear.
Chinese are subject to incessant propaganda, not just through the media, but also through the school system as children, about the primacy of the Party, the importance of loyalty to the Party, the equation of the interests of the Party with the interests of China. When the indoctrinated hear criticism of the Party, especially from outsiders, it is all too easy for them to equate that criticism with criticism of China.
Racism sometimes takes the form of blaming all members of a group for the misdeeds of some members of a group. Racism also sometimes takes the form of false accusations against all members of a group.
It would be naive to think that anti-China prejudice does not exist. Bigotry is part of the human condition. The Chinese are as likely to be the victims of prejudice as any other sub-component of humanity.
For anti-Chinese bigots, an accusation real or not that some Chinese are engaged in organ transplant abuse could be fodder for their bigotry. How does one distinguish between bigotry and reality in this context?
Prejudice literally means pre-judgement. One way to distinguish between bigotry and reality is to determine whether the judgment on organ transplant abuse was based on the facts or the identity of the claimed perpetrator. Research on organ transplant abuse in China, which is extensive, documented and verifiable, certainly passes that test.
A second way to distinguish between bigotry and reality is whether the accusation is limited to identified perpetrators or whether it extends to the whole group. Research on organ transplant abuse in China, which limits its indictment to the Chinese Communist Party and elements within it and does not accuse the Chinese people as a whole, passes that test as well.
The Chinese Communist Party shuts off all access within China to the research which is the basis of conclusions on organ transplant abuse in China, and then dismisses the research as rumour. Looking at the research to see whether there is rumour on which the conclusions rely is not an option available to Chinese in China. Testing to see whether the conclusions of organ transplant abuse on China are evidence based is not a test which can be conducted within China.
Also, distinguishing between the Chinese Communist Party and China itself, which is easy for outsiders to do, is not so easy for those within China, who have been told their whole lives that the two are one and the same. The test of distinction between specific accused and the whole group, all Chinese, is also not so easily passed within China.
In result, the charge against the research of organ transplant abuse in China of anti-China bigotry, which seems to outsiders just ridiculous verbiage, has an air of reality to those in China who are indoctrinated and cut off from real information. And ultimately it is those who are in China who are the primary audience of the Chinese Communist Party.
Prior to the arrival of the Chinese Communist Party in power, China was a victim of foreign interference. In the nineteenth century, the British East India company made a lot of money selling opium in China. The Chinese authorities, understandably concerned about the rise of opium addiction, banned the sale of opium. The British invaded, reversing the ban. As a result of having lost this war, China was forced to cede Hong Kong to the British, a port city which could be used to continue the importation of opium into China.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, the Boxer rebellion protested Christian missionary activity. The response to the rebels was a foreign invasion which defeated the Chinese Imperial army.
Before and during World War II, Japan invaded China, seized territory and massacred Chinese citizens. The Nanjing massacre left between 200,000 and 300,000 dead.
The Party had and has an overinflated sense of its own importance. The Party saw and sees itself as a bulwark against the continuation of this foreign interference.
To the Party, losing power to what they thought was an organization which looked like the China they saw before the Communists came to power would have been a regression. So, they stood firmly against it.
Ethnic nationalism isn’t always one ethnicity against another. Sometimes it is a conflict between different components of the same group, one claiming to be more ethnic, more nationalist than the other. That was the stance that the Party took against Falun Gong.
The Party did not claim Falun Gong was foreign, which it obviously was not. Nor did it claim that Falun Gong was a minority ethnicity, which again obviously it was not. What it did claim was that Party rule was threatened by the advent of Falun Gong, and that Party rule was necessary for Chinese nationalism.
Given the nationalist bent of the Party, it may seem odd that the Party did not attack David Kilgour and me as interfering foreigners. However, such an attack would have undermined another line of attack the Party preferred to use, that we were being manipulated by Falun Gong and that our work was ultimately a product of Falun Gong.
Because Falun Gong is Chinese, the Party had to choose between attacking us as foreigners and attacking us as puppets. Given the heavy investment by the Party by 2006 in its attack against Falun Gong, the Party decided that misattributing our work as a Falun Gong product was, within China, a more damaging attack than blaming us for foreign interference in Chinese affairs. As well, as explained later, the Party thought Falun Gong was a Western manipulated movement.
The popularity of Falun Gong, once it started, exploded. According to the Party/States own estimates, the number of practitioners went in from nothing to seventy million in the course of seven years, from 1992 to 1999. Private sources suggested that this estimate of seventy million was too low, that the figure was closer to 100 million.
The practice of Falun Gong was everywhere in China and everywhere throughout society. It pervaded even the Party itself. The exercises were done outside in groups. There were 3,000 exercise stations in Beijing alone. The practice was highly visible.
The Party itself was partly responsible for this rise in popularity. The Party initially encouraged the practice of Falun Gong on the basis that it was beneficial to health. However, the Party got blindsided, not anticipating how successful its encouragement would be.
The rise of Falun Gong occurred at a time when the Party had walked away from socialism and switched to capitalism. Chinese president Deng Xiaoping, who led the shift from socialism to capitalism, said
“it does not matter whether the cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice”.
Who, in that metaphor, is the cat? Who is the mouse? And what are the colours?
The answer to the last question is straightforward. The colours are socialism and capitalism. Both socialism and capitalism are seen as a means to an end rather than ends in themselves. But what is the end, if both socialism and capitalism are means?
Superficially, it might seem that the end is wealth. Yet, objectively, what is the value of wealth? Wealth itself is a means to end. Capitalism may make us wealthier than socialism, but to what end?
According to University of Denver scholar Suisheng Zhao, the end was pragmatic nationalism. China today is an empire. The Government of China governs a number of different nationalities. According to the Government of China, there are 56 nationalities in China. The Han Chinese are 90%. The rest are a diverse lot.
The question any Government of China faces is how to keep this diverse lot together. There are sentiments of separation or autonomy of parts of China, sentiments the Party labels as splittism. The most notable are the sentiments of the Tibetan and the Uighur in Xianjing. However, there are several other populations with similar sentiments.
Communism, as an ideology, was not a sufficient glue to hold together the Chinese empire and keep the Chinese Communist Party in power. So, the Party turned elsewhere. Pervasive wealth was, to Deng Xiaoping, an argument in favour of keeping the Chinese empire together and the Communist Party in power.
But, what has this got to do with Falun Gong? To answer that question, to answer any question why perpetrators go after victims, it is a mistake to look at the characteristics of the victim. We have rather to look at the perception of the perpetrators.
Objectively, there was and is no reason for the persecution of Falun Gong. For the Chinese Communist Party, there was a reason because of their own political dynamics.
Communism was more than just an economic analysis. It was a device to bring Communists to power and keep them power. Communism was never, ideologically, democratic. It depended on democratic centralism or dictatorship of the proletariat. In democratic centralism what mattered more was centralism. What mattered less was democracy. In dictatorship of the proletariat, what mattered more was dictatorship. What mattered less was the proletariat.
Despite its non-democratic tendencies, the Party needed at least some support to get to power and stay in power. The power device it used was going after an external enemy – the capitalists, the bourgeoisie, the exploiters. In the early days of the industrial revolution, these were plausible, if not ultimately real, enemies. Communism depended on class struggle where the Communists, in least in theory, represented the working class.
However, in China, with the shift from socialism to capitalism, all that disintegrated. The enemies of the Party became its friends. Deng Xiaoping, who was a master of aphorisms, said that to get rich is glorious. But, if capitalists were no longer the enemy, who was?
The answer the Party chose was Falun Gong. Objectively, to call a people who engage in a harmless set of exercises as the enemy of the people was nonsensical. Moreover, in view of the fact it was so widespread, that so many people knew what Falun Gong was, it was obviously nonsensical.
Nonetheless, for the Party, choosing Falun Gong as its new enemy, to replace the capitalists had an appeal. One reason was that it was everywhere and visible. No one could say that Falun Gong did not exist, because it very much did, everywhere in great numbers.
Second, Falun Gong challenges the nationalist credentials of the Party. Despite the claims of Chinese ethnic nationalism of the Chinese Communist Party, its Chinese credentials are far weaker than those of Falun Gong. Communism, ideologically, is to China, a Western import, the ideology of Marx, Engels and Lenin. Falun Gong, as noted, is rooted in Chinese spiritual and exercise traditions. Its ideology is not a Western import.
Third, Falun Gong was not Communist in any shape or form. It relied on traditions which existed long before the Party came to power. It is spiritual and the Party is atheist. Falun Gong is the face of China that existed before the advent of Communism.
Fourth, the Party suffered from a misconception of the nature of Falun Gong, a misconception which, one would have thought, would have been easy to avoid, because of the prevalence of the practice of Falun Gong. The Party was technologically backward. It was not used to cell phone communication and flash mobs. When it saw crowds of practitioners of Falun Gong protesting initial efforts at repression, the Party saw behind those protests an organization and a leadership, even though there was neither.
The Party itself functioned and functions secretly. The Party assumed that Falun Gong was like itself, a secret organization. The Party runs the Government, not just in a general sense, but in a very detailed way. Every Government office has a Party official to whom the Government office reports and from whom the Government office receives instructions.
At its pinnacle, the instructing party official, the Secretary General of the Communist Party and the instructed official, the President of China, are one and the same person. Everywhere else they diverge. Every Government office is a puppet, and the Party is the puppet master.
Yet, what the Party does, what its instructions it gives to Government officials are secret. Outsiders can see who the Government officials, what the Government does. But they can not see who the instructing Party people are, and what those Party people tell Government officials to do. Outsiders can see the puppets. But they can not see the puppet masters. The Party thought that Falun Gong ran the same way, with puppet masters in the background pulling the strings.
Fifth, because Falun Gong was so widespread and so pervasive within the Party at the time of banning, there was a lot of leakage of internal Party discussions about the banning. We even have verbatim the very memo that Jiang Zemin wrote to the Standing Committee of the Communist Party asking for the banning.
A large gathering of Falun Gong practitioners on April 25, 1999 at the Communist Party petition office in Beijing to petition against the publication of an article critical of Falun Gong in a Tianjin journal prompted Jiang Zemin on that day to write to the standing members of the Political Bureau of Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party:
“After this incident occurred the Western media reported it immediately, with seditious exaggeration. Is there any connection with the overseas, with the Western? Is there a behind-the-scenes master in the planning command?”
To an objective observer, the charge that Westerners were somehow orchestrating what Falun Gong were doing is ridiculous. However, we must not approach this issue simply from the angle of reasonableness. We have to keep in mind what the Party thought it saw. And what the Party thought it saw, from the pen of the President of China himself, is foreign manipulation and intrusion. Against the Falun Gong, the Communist Party was playing the ethnic Chinese card.
The Constitution of China guarantees freedom of religion, but with several provisos. One of those is that religious bodies and religious affairs are not to be “subject to any foreign domination”. The constitutional provision about foreign domination has been implemented through rules and instructions. The State Council in 1994 enacted Administrative Rules for the Religious Activities of Foreigners within the Borders of the People’s Republic of China. The State Administration for Religious Affairs in 2000, not that long after the roll out of the repression campaign against Falun Gong, released Detailed Instructions on the Implementation of the Administrative Rules for the Religious Activities of Foreigners within the Borders of the People’s Republic of China. As the titles indicate, these rules and instructions are directed entirely to and against foreigners.
The Party, which is still Marxist, has a caustic view of religion, as the opiate of the masses. It no longer considers capitalists to be the drug pushers. It locates those pushing the addiction of religion to be those attempting foreign domination.
In the letter of Jiang Zemin, the juxtaposition of the suggestion of a Western connection with the suggestion of a behind the scenes master was no coincidence. Jiang Zemin was suggesting a behind the scenes Western master for Falun Gong.
The questions Jiang Zemin raised were not posed out a sense of curiosity. They were rhetorical questions, meant to suggest answers.
Because it is so divorced from reality, it is hard to believe that the Party concluded that Falun Gong is a foreign dominated movement, and that this was the reason for its repression. Yet, one has to acknowledge that President and Secretary-General Jiang Zemin, whether or not he believed it, certainly said it and used it as an argument to convince his colleagues.
Context matters. To outsiders, the charge that Falun Gong is directed by a Western behind the scenes master is bizarre. To those imbued with Chinese Communist Party doctrine, it can seem a realistic possibility.
The reality is the complete opposite. Falun Gong is not an organization; it is not even people. It is rather a set of exercises with a spiritual foundation. The exercises can be done by anyone, anywhere, at any time, though commonly they are done once daily in groups. Those who are interested can begin the exercises whenever they want and stop whenever they want. A person need not register with anyone or join anything to practice the exercises. All information about how to do the exercises is publicly available.
Those who practise Falun Gong have no organizational leadership. Li Hong Zhi has written books and given public lectures widely available in print and on the internet which have inspired individual Falun Gong practitioners. He is the founder of the practice, its first teacher, a spiritual leader, but not an organization leader.
There are some Falun Gong practitioners who have formed and joined support organizations, Falun Dafa associations. Falun Dafa associations are local or national. There is no one international Falun Dafa Association.
These associations encompass only a portion of Falun Gong practitioners. They may facilitate some Falun Gong activities. But they do not represent or lead or organize all Falun Gong practitioners.
These associations make representations to government on behalf of Falun Gong practitioners. In formulating these representations, they operate by consensus of all and any of those practitioners who volunteer to participate in the discussion about what those representations should be.
The amorphous nature of Falun Gong meant that it was impossible for the Communist Party to control. Because other beliefs are organized, the Government of China has responded in part by attempting to take over the organizations.
There is a Chinese government appointed Buddhist Panchen Lama, Chinese government selected Roman Catholic bishops, Chinese government chosen Muslim imams. These designations mitigate the attacks the Government of China launches against these beliefs, since it does not want to undermine its own appointees.
If Falun Gong had a leadership, the Party, as it had done with the major religions, just would have appointed some of its cronies and said that they were the leadership of the Falun Gong. But Falun Gong does not lend itself to this sort of usurpation.
For Falun Gong, since there is no organization and no leadership, there is no one China can appoint to head the Falun Gong. Not being inhibited from undermining its own appointees, the Government of China attacks on the Falun Gong know no bounds.
Falun Gong suffered both from a suspicion of foreign domination and the absence of a structure which prevented Communist domination. These explanations for its repression do not contradict each other. They were, rather, mutually reinforcing.
After the repression of Falun Gong, Party propaganda against the Falun Gong was disassociated from the reasons for the banning. The Party charged practitioners of Falun Gong with all sort of weird behaviour – bestiality, vampirism, suicide inducement. They called Falun Gong an evil cult. This demonization was a fabrication, without evidence, propaganda without fact.
Even if one puts to one side the external propaganda and considers only the internal Party reasons for repression, those reasons, from an outsider perspective, are nonsense. From a Chinese Communist Party perspective, they were, at the very least, debatable; there had been vigorous debate within the Party about repressing Falun Gong both before the decision was made to repress it and afterwards.
However, the Party did not want to carry forward this debate into the population at large. Once the decision to repress was made, it had to be, to the public at large, beyond debate. That meant accusing Falun Gong of the worst behaviour imaginable, not because the behaviour was real, but because that sort of behaviour could not possibly be justified.
The Party’s “more Chinese than thou” attitude was not the only reason for the repression of Falun Gong. But it was a factor. We can not hope to combat and unravel the repression of Falun Gong unless we appreciate its causes.
David Matas is an international human rights lawyer based in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada