When Canadian human rights attorney David Matas began investigating allegations that the government of China was harvesting organs from detained Falun Gong practitioners, he didn’t want to believe it was true. “I would like to think better of humanity than that one human being would kill another innocent human being for their organs,” he said.
That, however, was not the conclusion Matas reached during his investigation.
Matas was part of the 2008 Bluegrass Community and Technical College Spring Speaker Series sponsored by The Peace and Justice Coalition. During his March 27 talk on campus he detailed the allegations of organ harvesting, the persecution of the Falun Gong and the results of the investigation he conducted with David Kilgour, a former member of Canada’s Parliament and a former Secretary of State of the Government of Canada.
“In some ways you can compare the Falun Gong to the early Christians,” Matas said, reminding the audience about the persecution of the early Christians by the Romans. Regardless of the consequences, they carried on with their beliefs.
Although the Government of China has characterized Falun Gong as a cult, Matas defined it as a set of traditional Chinese exercises and spiritual practices that blend Taoism and Buddhism. A brochure available at the talk calls it “A traditional self-cultivation practice to improve mind and body.” Information about the practice is widely available online.
Li Hongzhi began the movement in 1992. Matas finds it to be more like a group of people who all practice a similar exercise (llike a group of swimmers, for example) rather than a religion. If it is a religion, he said, “It’s a religion without any priests or hierarchy or churches or funds. It’s very dispersed,” he said. “They don’t have any characteristics as a cult.”
“Cult” can have a different meaning in the United States than in China. According to the 2007 Annual Report of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, any religious group not affiliated with one of the seven government-approved religious organizations in China can be considered a cult, including Roman Catholics (who pledge allegiance to Rome rather than to the Chinese controlled Catholic church), Tibetan Buddhists and various spiritual movements such as Falun Gong. The same report said: “The Chinese government continues to engage in systematic egregious violations of freedom of religion or belief.”
The Perceived Threat
China’s suppression of the Falun Gong began in 1999 when the government estimated there were approximately 60 million practitioners; the Communist Party claimed a membership smaller than that, posing a worry for the government. When a group of 10,000 – 15,000 assembled outside Communist Party headquarters in Beijing to protest arrests of some members, the government banned the group. Because Falun Gong is based on Chinese traditions rather than western imports, like Christianity, Matas said the government sees it as more of a threat.
Matas said more than one million Falun Gong have been detained. In detention, prisoners are “re-educated” and asked to renounce Falun Gong. If they do not, they are reportedly subjected to torture and a sentence in a Labor Camp. The report from the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom says Falun Gong practitioners claim more than 3,000 have died while in police custody. Human rights researchers estimate the Falun Gong comprise up to half of the 250,000 recorded inmates in 125 labor camps.
A United National Special Rapporteur on Torture report from 2005 says that 66% of victims of alleged torture and ill-treatment in China were Falun Gong adherents, compared, for example, to 6% who were Tibetans and 2% who were political dissidents.
As Matas and Kilgour conducted their investigation, they found the standard forms of evidence were not available. Matas began his work on the issue with skepticism in place, knowing that the accusations could have a political basis. But the evidence they found led the men to believe organ harvesting was happening in multiple locations throughout the country. “Every piece of evidence we have is independently verifiable,” Matas said, detailing three independent peer reviews that agreed with the findings.
They report that the bodies of victims were cremated, leaving no records. But the increase in organ transplants in China from 2000 to 2005 is undeniable. Matas said 41,500 organs, coming from unexplained sources, were transplanted during those years. International travel to China for transplants also increased during that time. And when the investigation placed calls to Chinese hospitals asking if they had Falun Gong organs available, one in 10 hospitals said yes.
“My concern about this is these are people who are being victimized simply because of what they believe. They are peaceful, nonviolent and innocent,” Matas said.
He has traveled to 15 cities in the U.S. and 40 countries sharing results of his investigation. As happened in other locations, a representative of the Chinese government contacted the seven organizations in Lexington that sponsored the talk, providing information that it says refutes the findings of the report. In some locations, Matas has debated representatives of China, required an escort to ensure his safety and witnessed protests.
Yet, he continues, hoping to raise awareness about the issue. He would like to see governments make it a crime to go abroad for organ transplants that do not have legal consent. Legislators, medical practitioners and patients can all play a role in ensuring that safeguards are in place for organ donations.
There has been some movement in the area of legislation. Matas said the government of Israel, which previously provided funding for transplant trips to China, has stopped the funding and outlawed the practice. Legislators in Belgium and Canada have also introduced laws, which Matas says brings attention to the issue.