• Questions are being asked about the links between a Sydney hospital and a Chinese organ transplant hospital. (Stock image)
Are political prisoners in China being killed for their organs? Dateline has a special investigation into disturbing claims over the use of live donors in the country’s transplant trade.
Tuesday, April 7, 2015 - 21:30

10,000 organs are transplanted in China every year, yet there are only a tiny number of people on the official donor register.

It’s become a destination for people wanting to avoid waiting lists and get a quick transplant. The industry is said to be worth a billion dollars.

But where are the organs coming from?

“Somebody’s being killed for the organ,” human rights lawyer David Matas says. “There’s no other way to explain what’s happening.”

He and fellow Nobel Peace Prize nominee, lawyer and politician David Kilgour, have spent years investigating organ trafficking in China.

They believe some of the organs come from members of the Falun Gong movement – a quasi-religious group with millions of followers, which is banned by the Chinese Government.

“Falun Gong, before it was repressed was very popular in China,” David Matas says. “It’s estimated, according to government of China statistics, between 70 and 100 million people, which was then more than the membership of the Communist Party of China.”

Investigators claim thousands of them have been detained by authorities.

“I testify to the atrocious crime that the hospital committed in removing livers and corneas from living Falun Gong members,” says former worker Annie.

“Some of them were still alive when they were secretly burnt in the incinerator that was in the boiler room.”

Her husband at the time was a surgeon responsible for removing organs. They fled China to escape the work, but he then faced an attempt to kill him.

“Some people in the hospital knew about this, but they were too afraid of being killed to speak up,” she says.

David Matas believes such evidence is the only way of explaining the fast availability of organs.
“Everywhere else in the world it would be months and years,” he says. “When you book a transplant in advance, for a heart transplant, and you go to China and you get a transplant within a few days.”

“I went to the mainland on 25 June. So I waited two to three weeks,” says patient Rourou Zhuang.

She travelled from Taiwan for a kidney transplant, but only found out later that her donor could potentially have been killed to order.

“I was totally shocked to find out about the source,” she says. “I also feel very sad I participated in that. So I thought I should tell my story to let the public know.”

The Chinese Government wouldn’t appear on camera for Dateline's program, but it refutes the claims.

“The main source of our organs is from death row prisoners,” Health Minister Jiefu Huang has said previously in an interview with state television.

However, the Chinese Government did make its own documentary challenging evidence gathered from undercover phone calls for the program.

One doctor, Lu Guoping, replies ‘that’s right’ when asked by an investigator posing as a patient if the organs come from Falun Gong members.

But the same doctor has a different response in the government film.

“I told her that I had never been involved in transplant surgery. I couldn’t answer her, as I didn’t know how they got the organs,” he says.

Laws banning transplant tourism to China are already in place in Israel and Spain and are being debated in many other countries.

China has also faced heavy criticism from the UN over the use of death row prisoners for organs, but the human rights lawyers spearheading the investigation want much more action.

“We would like to see all the names of all the doctors that are involved go on a list,” David Kilgour says. “They would know that they have an excellent chance someday of facing the International Criminal Court in The Hague.”

Unfortunately this story is no longer available for copyright reasons, but you can read the full transcript below.

Human Harvest: Filmmaker Q&A
The maker of the Human Harvest documentary, about organs being forcibly taken from live donors for the transplant trade in China, was online on twitter during the program. Here are some of Leon Lee's answers to your questions.

And a few weeks after Dateline's broadcast, Leon's story won a prestigious Peabody Award.


Watch previous stories from Dateline and The Feed about organ trafficking elsewhere in the world:

The Body Snatchers
Dateline investigates the kidnap, torture and murder of refugees in the Egyptian desert and uncovers a disturbing trade in their body parts.
The Cruellest Cut - Pakistan's Kidney Mafia
More and more Westerners - including Australians, it appears - are travelling abroad to get transplants, particularly kidneys - currently the world's most sought-after organ.

Related Links



ROUROU ZHUANG, ORGAN RECIPIENT (Translation):  My health began deteriorating - I had treatment for six months. In October 2000, I started dialysis, both kidneys completely stopped functioning. I was crying almost every day, I cried whenever I saw my family, as if I would never see them again.

XIUSONG TU, ORGAN RECIPIENT (Translation):  My health began deteriorating, after my kidneys were damaged, I started dialysis.

ROUROU ZHUANG (Translation):  When my mum heard there was a transplant opportunity she pooled the money for me to go the mainland.

XIUSONG TU (Translation):  From 2004 I started dialysis, after a year and a half, in 2006, I went to the mainland for a transplant.

ROUROU ZHUANG (Translation):  A dozen patients were in the intensive care unit, the seven of us went in a group.

These women are among thousands travelling to China to purchase organs. Around the world more than two million people desperately need a transplant. Waiting lists can be years long. So they travel here to pay to receive organs straight away. For years China has been accused of killing and stealing the organs of political prisoners to supply their organ transplant system. This film is based on years of investigation led by Nobel Peace Prize nominees David Matas and David Kilgour into organ harvesting claims in China.

DAVID KILGOUR, INVESTIGATOR: David Matas and I were asked to investigate from Washington.

DAVID MATAS, INVESTIGATOR: Didn't give us any data, any money, directions. They just asked us to do that.

DAVID KILGOUR: As a person who interested in human dignity, that is why I think thought this is something I could do. So we both volunteered to do it.

Dr Enver Tohti is a Wyghur cancer surgeon from north-eastern China. He recalls in shocking detail his involvement in removing organs, the patient was still alive in surgery. No anaesthetic was used.

DR ENVER TOHTI, ORGAN TRANSPLANT DOCTOR:  I believe it was a Tuesday summer, July 1995. One of my chief surgeons and a colleague said – do you want to do something wild? I was young. I said yes. And then he said - OK, come to see me tomorrow morning at 9.30 at the gates of the hospital. Next day we came to a place called the Western Mountain Execution Grounds. Then we heard the gunshot. But to my surprise when I cut through blood still come out. That is to say, blood is still running. That means this person is still alive. The gunshot wound is to the right, not to the left. So that is to say, to make sure this person is not dead, I cut through to the both sides, removed the liver, and took the kidneys. It took me less than 30 minutes.

Organ trafficking is highly controversial. The harvesting of those organs is also illegal, but allegedly booming in China. The Chinese Health Department refused to be interviewed for this film, but the Australian-trained vice minister did give this interview to Chinese state television.

HUANG JIEFU, VICE HEALTH MINISTER (Translation):  China has 10,000 to 11,000 a year, the second largest in the world.

DAVID MATAS: They don't have a donation system. They started one in 2010. But for most of the time we were doing this there was no donation system. They don't have a law allowing for the brain dead, cardiac alive, the accident victims.

DAMON NOTO, MD, DOCTORS AGAINST FORCED ORGAN HARVESTING:  The Beijing Red Cross themselves stated in 2011 that over the past 20 years only 37 people nationwide had registered to become an organ donor. Take that in comparison to the United Kingdom that has 18 million people as registered donors - so the question becomes how has China become the number two transplant country in the world?

DAVID MATAS:  Where are these organs coming from?

ROUROU ZHUANG (Translation):  I asked the question, he said they were from executed prisoners.

HUANG JIEFU (Translation):  The main source of our organs is from the death row prisoners.

The organisation, Doctors against Forced Organ Harvesting - is lobbying internationally for the practice to be stopped.

DAMON NOTO: If you look at many experts who try to estimate it, it's anywhere from about 2-8,000 executions a year takes place in China, which is more than all the world combined. But that's still falling short of the 10,000 organs that they're saying they are transplanting every year. The numbers don't add up. Even if they executed 10,000 a year and transplanted 10,000 a year, there would still be a very large discrepancy.

Part of the investigation into China’s controversial practice focuses on statistics that just don't add up. It's very difficult to match organs. Even siblings only have a 25% chance of a match. For non-related donors, the success rate is much lower.

DAMON NOTO: Many times we will use the ratio of ten to one. It takes ten people to find a suitable donor for one person.

It's estimated that China is transplanting 10,000 organs a year.

DAVID MATAS: Which means that you'd need at any one time 100,000 people sentenced to death and sitting in prisons to generate the volume of transplants they're getting, obviously there are some prisoners that are killed for their organs, or the form of the execution is being killed for the organs but the volume is just too great. So where are all the others coming from?

DAMON NOTO: Then there's the factor of time that needs to be really understood. Once you harvest someone's organs it's not that you can keep these organs around forever. There's a very short window of time – take for example a heart which only has about eight hours once removed from the body.

ROUROU ZHUANG (Translation):  I had a blood test in May, I went to the mainland on 25th June, so I waited two to three weeks.

DAVID MATAS: Everywhere else in the world it would be much years. When you book a transplant in advance, for a heart transplant and you go to China and you get a transplant within a few days, somebody's been killed for the organ. There's no other way to explain what is happening in that situation.

DAMON NOTO:  So how are they able to have this quote unquote on demand transplant system that is capable of extremely short times? The only way they can be doing this is if they have another source of living donors that are available on demand.

Investigators believe Chinese authorities are handpicking dissidents to be killed for their organs. Among their key targets - the Falun Gong. Falun Gong is a quasi-religious organisation focussing on self-cultivation, using meditation and tai-chi-like exercises. It began in 1992. The practice exploded in popularity but was and still is unpopular with Communist authorities.

DAVID MATAS: The Falun Gong before it was repressed was very popular in China. It’s estimated, according to government of China statistics, between 70 and 100 million people, which was then more than the membership of the Communist Party of China.

ANNIE, WHISTLEBLOWER (Translation):  My name is Annie, I testify to the atrocious crimes that the hospital committed in removing livers and corneas from living Falun Gong members. I came from Sujiatun, Shenyang, Liaoning. I am revealing a concentration camp inside a Chinese and Western Medicine Integration hospital. My husband was a doctor in the hospital, my ex-husband and I worked in that hospital from 1990 to 2004 – he was a neurosurgeon.

He was involved in removing corneas from Falun Gong members, including removing corneas from living Falun Gong members. Some of them were still alive when they were secretly burnt in the incinerator that was in the boiler room. Of the Falun Gong members whose organs were removed, some were frail, others were strong. Many of them were arrested illegally without a warrant. They had no identification with them and none of them survived. Of several thousand Falun Gong members, many died after their livers, corneas and skin were removed. Their bodies were destroyed without a trace

DAVID MATAS: Falun Gong have got three basic principles - truthfulness, compassion and tolerance. The notion of truthfulness I have no doubt bothered the party. Because the party basically just functions on the basis of lies and propaganda and dissimilation and pretense and to have an important element of the population believing in truth just undermines the workings of the party and its control of the state.

ANNIE (Translation):  I found my husband was often in a trance, he often woke up from nightmares, frightened. I asked him to quit the job. He did. But quitting the job endangered his life, so we decided to get out of China.

DAVID KILGOUR: We tried hard to reach the husband. David Matas and I were told he was in Toronto. But he wouldn't talk to us. We couldn't reach him. He's not going to admit to the two of us that he's committing mass murder. That's not going to allow him to stay in Canada.

ANNIE (Translation):  I’ve been fleeing to avoid being killed, when my husband decided not to remove organs from Falun Gong, an agency attempted to assassinate him. Some people in the hospital knew about this, but they were too afraid of being killed to speak up.

DAMON NOTO:  It became apparent that Chinese organ harvesting was an extremely profit business, with the Chinese medical centres often saying that their no. 1 source of revenue was their transplant unit. And that on their website: they were saying they are charging 30 thousand dollars for a cornea, 60 thousand dollars for a kidney, 150 thousand dollars for a heart. Imagine what one person would worth in hundreds of thousands.

XIUSONG TU (Translation):  They gave a price randomly, I was asked to pay around US$29,000.

ROUROU ZHUANG (Translation):  The surgeon told me to prepare US$49,000.

DAVID MATAS: Well frankly I don't think the Chinese health system could survive without it, a billion dollars a year or more.

DAVID KILGOUR: The staff in their operating rooms are all making a lot of money from doing it. They're not going to talk about it. The victims are all dead. You aren't going to get a smoking gun as you might get in a television drama.

DAVID MATAS: The scene of the crime, once the crime is committed, leaves no trace. It is an operating room that after it's finished, there's no trace. So it's not an easy allegation to establish and what we had to do is walk around it every different way.

MAO QUN-AN, CHINESE HEALTH MINISTRY (Translation):  The impact of this whole thing, especially its impact on the international community, has gone beyond the organ transplant issue. It is an international attack on China and the Chinese government.

DAVID MATAS:  Sure, they issued a denial; they make no independent attempt to investigate. Chinese government did this for political propagandistic reasons, without any evidence whatsoever.

DAVID KILGOUR: We did get into China through some very clever Mandarin-speaking, in some cases Canadian, in some cases American. They phoned hospitals pretending to ask for Falun Gong organs.

INVESTIGATOR (Translation):  Hello.

DOCTOR (Translation):  Hello.

INVESTIGATOR (Translation):  Are you a doctor? Can you do transplant surgery?

DOCTOR (Translation):  Yes, we can.

INVESTIGATOR (Translation):  How long will I have to wait?

DOCTOR (Translation):  About a week after you arrive.

INVESTIGATOR (Translation):  Are there any organs from Falun Gong members? I heard they are good organs.

DOCTOR (Translation):  Yes, that is what we have.

INVESTIGATOR (Translation):  So your organs are all from Falun Gong members. They are all fresh. For how many hours?

DOCTOR (Translation):  In theory, it should be fine within 24 hours, but we normally set 10 hours.

DAVID MATAS: We were doing calls pretty well systematically across China.

INVESTIGATOR (Translation):  From a patient’s perspective, we hope to find an organ from a live body, which is fresh. People say we can get live organs from convicted prisoners. Many patients got live organs from Falun Gong members. Can this be done for us?

RECEPTIONIST (Translation):  Yes, it can be done.

On release of the covert recordings the Chinese Government produced a documentary refuting what was said in the phone calls with medical staff. This was recorded by investigators.

INVESTIGATOR (Translation):  They have healthy organs from Falun Gong members?

DOCTOR (Translation):  That’s right.

INVESTIGATOR (Translation):  I see. Do you think he can find me a Falun Gong donor?

DOCTOR (Translation):  No problem, if you go there.

This here is that same doctor, rejecting what he was recorded saying.

LU GUOPING, DOCTOR (Translation):  She asked me if that hospital used organs from Falun Gong members, I told her that I had never been involved in transplant surgery. I could not answer her, as I did not know how they got the organs. In this report, she said she asked me “Were you Falun Gong members’ organs from prisons or detention centres?” She said that I replied that they were from prisons. But that wasn’t what I said. I said that neither our hospital nor I could do such surgery, so we couldn’t get any organs.

DAMON NOTO: It’s been through many different investigation that we now come to believe that prisoners of conscience including Falun Gong practitioners, Tibetans, Vigors, house Christians were being killed for their organs, and many of us now believe that the practitioners of Falun Gong may be the worst victim, because they comprise by many or believed by many of being the largest population of prisoners of conscience today. Also if you look at the timeline of the onset of China’s booming transplantation and the onset of persecution of Falun Gong, it runs almost in parallel, with both of them starting in 1999.

YUMEI LIU, FALUN GONG PRACTITIONER (Translation):  When I was held in detention the police said to me “Tell us your name and address or we will remove your heart and liver. Your body will disappear”. Our family of six are staunch Falun Gong members. Three family members have been persecuted to death, we could not find all their bodies.

DAVID MATAS:  I talked to one fellow, he was a non-Falun Gong practitioner in prison, and he was in prison with prisoners sentenced to death and Falun Gong practitioners, and both of them were being killed for organs, and he could see it, and he talks about seeing it, and he knows who was who, and the process was the same. I mean, people would come in white coats and they’d do the blood tests and then they’d put potassium, which would immobilize the prisoner. And then there’d be these white vans, and the organs would be sourced within the white vans and then taken to the local hospital.

Organ harvesting witnesses are reluctant to come forward, fearing persecution. But one police officer did speak with investigators. He describes witnessing an operation on a young, still alive, female Falun Gong practitioner. He held a gun to guard the door of the operating theatre.

POLICEMAN (Translation):  The scalpel was on her chest, when it cut into her chest, the blood spurted out. Prior to that, we had interrogated her for a week, we severely tortured her and she had countless wounds. We used electric batons and electric shock to send her into delirium. She lost 7.5 kilos in seven days. No anaesthetic was used - the surgeon put on his mask and cut her chest open. We guarded the theatre holding revolvers. The woman screamed and shouted “Falun Dafa is wonderful! You can kill but you can’t kill the millions of us! You’re persecuting me because of my faith.”
At that moment the surgeon hesitated, he looked at me and looked at my leader, the leader nodded at him and he continued. He took out the heart first and then the kidneys. When her cardiac vessels were cut by the scissors, she twitched, then she screamed in a horrible way, her voice was broken and she screamed like this…her mouth was wide open, so were her eyes. I…I don’t want to continue!

Dr Tohti who said he performed organ harvesting finds the guilt haunts him every day.

DR ENVER TOHTI: I always wished that to find out this man's religion. If he was Muslim, I would go to mosque to pray for forgiveness and to pray for peace, for him to rest in peace. If he is Christian, I would go to church. If he is Buddhist, I would go to temple. But I didn't know, I didn't know this man at all.  So this always haunting me, it's kind of guilty feelings, you see.

ANNIE (Translation):  I could not accept that my husband was involved in the organ removal, we divorced. For the past few days, I have lived with the pain of guilt, I am thinking that if I had talked to my husband earlier, and asked them to speak up, more people might have survived.

Awareness of organ harvesting is gaining traction. The international community is attempting to crack down on the issue.

THERESA CHU, HUMAN RIGHTS LAWYER (Translation):  In 2008, 150 signatories to the Istanbul Declaration urged all nations to pass legislation banning their citizens from having transplant surgery in countries where the source of organs is unclear.

So far more than 100 countries have endorsed the declaration's principles.

KRISTINA OJULAND, EU: The practice must be ended immediately and the least that you can do to stop it is to condemn publicly organ transplantation abuses in China and inform those European citizens who travel to China for organ transplants.

JACOB LAVEE, TEL AVIV SURGEON:  So immediately, after legislating this law, the orders were given to all Israeli insurance company and sick funds to stop immediately any reimbursement of Israeli operation, transplant operation, performed anywhere around the globe where it’s legal and targeting mainly China.

But it's still happening.

DAVID KILGOUR: We would like to see all the names, all the doctors involved, go on a list, and that they would know that they have an excellent chance of someday of facing the International Criminal Court in Hague.

DANA ROHRABACHER, US HOUSE OF REPS: This is a crime against humanity. We should do our best to identify those specific individuals who are engaged in this and put them on the list of people who deserve to be brought to justice.

THERESA CHU: Everyone living in this century, when facing the atrocity of organ harvesting, should question their conscience and ask themselves “What have I done?”

China has recently announced a commitment to stop harvesting organs from executed prisoners. A promise they've made several times before. For those recipients of harvested organs - knowing the truth is difficult to live with.

XIUSONG TU (Translation):  I didn’t know someone was to be killed.

ROUROU ZHUANG (Translation):  I was totally shocked to find out about the source, I also feel very sad I participated in that. So I thought I should tell my story to let the public know.



Story Editor

7th April 2015