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The Long Road To Confronting China’s War on Religion

How much leverage does the West really have over a nation on which it relies for basic necessities, including medical and technological supplies?

By Susan Crabtree

May 7, 2023

Falun Gong emerged in China in 1992, a time of a spiritual renewal in a land still under Communist rule, but one recovering from the horrors of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution. Drawing on Buddhist traditions, Falun Gong combined meditation and tai chi-style exercises with a moral philosophy centered on the tenets of “zhen,” “shan,” and “ren” (truth, compassion, tolerance.) The word, in both English and Chinese, to describe this contemplative mind and body approach to life is qigong.

Originating in the northeastern city of Changchun, the practice spread across the country. By the end of the decade, an estimated 70 million Chinese were following qigong spiritual meditation disciplines or had become devoted practitioners. But in the summer of 1999, after demonstrations on the 10th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests by Falun Gong followers, China’s leaders responded with staggering cruelty. In June, President Jiang Zemin set up an office specifically to persecute Falun Gong followers, and put Vice Premier Li Lanqing in charge of the effort. Falun Gong was not a benign new manifestation of ancient Chinese practices, the government decreed. Instead, the regime labeled it a dangerous “cult,” and proclaimed it a threat to the Chinese Communist Party. And threats to the CCP must be eradicated.

On the night of July 22, thousands of Falun Gong followers were rousted from their beds, arrested, beaten, and incarcerated. Their texts were burned in bonfires in cities across the country and their exercise routines banned. As supporters resisted, Chinese authorities ratcheted up the persecution. On Nov. 30, 1999, some 3,000 Communist Party functionaries were summoned to Beijing’s Great Hall of the People where Li Lanqing revealed the regime’s plans for Falun Gong: “Defame their reputations, bankrupt them financially, and destroy them physically.”

Only much later did the world come to see the ghastly lengths to which the CCP would go in this campaign.

No Physician Would Dare

The discussion among democratic nations about “decoupling” from Beijing over human rights presents a basic conundrum: How much leverage does the West really have over a nation on which it relies for basic necessities, including medical and technological supplies? This problem became acute—and a hot-button political issue—during the COVID-19 outbreak and the ensuing pandemic.

But human rights experts and religious freedom advocates have tried to draw attention to a far grislier supply-chain crisis that Beijing has controlled and secretly cultivated for years as the United States and other nations turned a blind eye to its horrors, despite a growing body of evidence.

Nearly a year ago, however, the American Journal of Transplantation, the leading medical transplant publication in the world, made it impossible to ignore.

Two researchers, Matthew Robertson, a Ph.D. student at Australian National University, and Dr. Jacob Lavee, the founder and former director of the Heart Transplantation Unit at the Sheba Medical Center in Israel, uncovered compelling evidence that Chinese surgeons are systematically removing organs from prisoners while they are still alive, providing on-demand supplies for what has become China’s billion-dollar organ export industry.

In their groundbreaking scholarship, Robertson and Lavee translated and analyzed thousands of Chinese surgeons’ writings in state-run academic journals about their transplant surgeries between 1980 and 2015. Among them, they found 71 papers containing “explicit descriptions” of surgeries in which hearts were extracted from prisoners who were still alive—an obvious and shocking violation of the internationally accepted “dead-donor” organ rule barring organ extractions before donors have been declared “brain dead.”

When Robertson, a fluent Mandarin speaker, translated an initial set of documents and shared them with Lavee, the Israeli surgeon’s initial reaction was disbelief.

“I remember telling him out front, ‘You got it wrong, mate.’ But then those papers kept piling [up], and we both were flabbergasted by our findings,” Lavee told RealClearPolitics. “No physician would dare do these organ procurements without first ascertaining the donors were indeed brain dead, and yet they not only did—but put it in writing.”

Other leading researchers have painstakingly documented a reprehensible aspect of these life-ending extractions: that prisoners of conscience—religious minorities and political dissidents—are the main victims.

There’s now extensive evidence that Chinese surgeons first honed their forced organ harvesting practice on practitioners of Falun Gong. Over the last several years, the regime expanded the pool of victims to China’s imprisoned Uyghur population as part of its systematic suppression of the Muslim minority group. (In 2021, Joe Biden formally declared China’s treatment of the Uyghur people as genocide for attempting to decimate the population through mass detention and forced sterilization. The Trump Administration made the issue impossible to ignore when it first deemed China’s repression of the Uyghurs a genocide on its last full day in power before Biden’s inauguration.)

Seeing Through China’s Deception

Pressure is growing in the United States and abroad to condemn the ghoulish organ extractions and take steps to ensure that responsible nations and medical institutions disentangle themselves from any involvement in or financial support for China’s organ supply chains.

Communist China has long harvested prisoners’ organs, even though the government in Beijing initially asserted that all their organ extractions were from voluntary donors. But as far back as 2005, the top transplant doctor in China, then serving as the nation’s vice minister of health, admitted that roughly 95 percent of all organ transplants came from prisoners.

An international outcry forced a change in policy in 2015, yet the Chinese Communist Party still reserved the right to extract organs for prisoners who “voluntarily” donated them. Conveniently for the Chinese government, there’s no way to prove that prisoners voluntarily agreed to allow their organs to be harvested upon execution.

Another revealing tell regarding China’s transplant business is how quickly patients can schedule appointments for transplant surgeries, within days or weeks, compared to waiting months or years in the United States.

In an even more dubious proposition, after the international outcry over its use of prisoners for the vast majority of its organ transplants, China said it had managed to rapidly increase its volunteer registry from virtually none in 2015 to nearly 1.77 million in 2019.

With the help of Australian statistician Raymond Hinde, Robertson and Lavee analyzed the growth curves of China’s volunteer donation lists for three organ types compared to 50 other countries and found them to be far smoother upward trajectories, nearly perfect yet implausible quadratic equations. Robertson and Lavee wrote a peer-reviewed medical ethics journal article in 2019, concluding that China’s medical bureaucracy had grossly falsified its volunteer donor database numbers.

More than 12 years prior, allegations had begun to surface that many Falun Gong followers had been killed to supply China’s organ transplant industry, although the evidence now suggests it began at least six years earlier. China has long denied pursuing this heinous policy, and until the last few years, a lack of transparency made the charges nearly impossible to verify.

But over time, experts, surgeons, and researchers have produced credible evidence, testifying about their appalling findings to Congress, the British Parliament, the United Nations, international tribunals, and other respected world bodies. In 2019, the China Tribunal, a non-governmental commission in the UK, investigated accusations of organ harvesting in China, holding hearings and weighing evidence from dozens of witnesses and experts. What they learned is that instead of curbing the practice in response to worldwide horror, the CCP expanded it to another persecuted religious minority: China’s Uyghur Muslims.

Led by Sir Geoffrey Nice, a world-renowned lawyer who previously prosecuted Slobodan Milosevic at the Hague, the tribunal’s seven-member panel concluded that forced organ harvesting has taken place on a significant scale throughout China for years. It also found that the CCP’s execution of prisoners of conscience for their organs constitutes crimes against humanity and said the sheer scale of the transplant tourism industry in China suggests that prisoners of conscience have been “killed to order” for their organs.

While the tribunal’s determination was a turning point, pressure continues to mount on the international community to do more to condemn the chilling practice and work to stop it. In December, Canada joined at least 10 other countries in passing anti-organ harvesting laws. Ottawa’s new law makes it illegal for citizens and residents to help fund or support any aspect of China’s organ harvesting industry.

Sam Brownback, who served as ambassador-at-large for the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom during the Trump Administration, likened the effort to document and amplify China’s organ harvesting on religious minorities to British politician William Wilberforce’s early efforts to uncover the horrors of the slave trade in the late 1700s.

“The key to any social movement is to put it right in people’s faces,” Brownback, who is writing a book on China’s long history of religious persecution, told RCP. “It wasn’t until William Wilberforce took people on tours of slave ships and let them smell them and see them that it really started turning the tide.”

As evidence builds, support for more U.S. and international action against China’s grim organ harvesting is growing in Washington as Congress tackles several aspects of China’s malign activities.

“There’s a greater willingness in Washington and around the world to acknowledge that China is dissembling, is secretive, is manipulating data—and they are doing that with their [false] claims of a voluntary donor organ system,” Nina Shea, a human rights lawyer and director of the Center for Religious Freedom at the Hudson Institute, told RCP.

At the International Religious Freedom Summit in early February, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Mike McCaul accused China of an “all-out assault on religion.”

McCaul then condemned China’s documented organ harvesting from both the Uyghur Muslims and the Falun Gong. It was one of the first times such a high-ranking U.S. politician publicly acknowledged the problem’s alarming gravity in forceful terms.

With McCaul’s backing and near unanimous support, in late March the House passed a bipartisan anti-organ harvesting bill spearheaded by Rep. Chris Smith, longtime human rights champion and co-chair of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China. The measure would impose sanctions on anyone involved in funding or supporting China’s organ harvesting industry. Sens. Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican, and Chris Coons, a Democrat from Delaware, have introduced a similar bill, now wending its way through the Senate.

Launching a Boycott

For the first time, a prestigious international medical organization recently stepped up to roundly condemn China’s organ harvesting practices and has backed up its statement with action against China. Last year, the International Society for Heart & Lung Transplantation, or ISHLT, issued a declaration acknowledging that China executes prisoners to harvest their organs for transplantation. As a result, doctors will no longer be able to publish their research in the society’s medical journal or present the results of their work at its annual conference. Human rights advocates tout the new ethics policy as the model all other transplantation-related societies should follow. Such a boycott, however limited for now, is no small matter, those leading it contend.

“We know that such an academic boycott is significant because China does not like to be held away from these international medical forums,” Dr. Lavee told RCP in a lengthy interview. “So hopefully, maybe there will be a similar organization, like the American Transplantation Society or another that will follow.”

“This is a significant development,” Robertson said last year during testimony to the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, a bipartisan House panel. “Dr. Lavee, my co-author, helped to make that happen. And I think it’s those types of efforts from professional organizations that will move the needle.”

Last month ISHLT held its annual gathering in Denver, where it amplified its condemnation of China to the medical establishment and the world. The opening session featured a presentation by Ethan Gutmann, the leading field researcher on China’s forced organ harvesting and a senior research fellow at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation. Gutmann last year testified to Congress that an estimated 25,000 to 50,000 Uyghur Muslims are killed annually for their organs. A revealing finding focuses on a former SARS hospital in Aksu, Xinjiang. Gutmann discovered that the facility has a detention camp for 33,000 people built around the hospital with a large crematorium less than a kilometer away. The hospital is served by an airport with a dedicated “fast lane” for expressing organs to hospitals throughout China.

“One Uyghur man said he drove by the crematorium every day, and the smell was a common complaint among local workers,” Guttmann told Congress last year.

In his book, The Slaughter, Gutmann shows how the horrific organ removals first took place with criminal executions of all types of prisoners and then ramped up after the Chinese government’s 1999 crackdown on the Falun Gong.

Gutmann has based his findings on more than 20 interviews with former prisoners in Chinese detention camps who have since fled the nation, along with accounts from relatives of organ-harvesting victims. Other public witnesses include a former Chinese surgeon, Dr. Enver Tohti Bugdha, who has testified to Congress and other international panels that, back in 1994, he regrettably performed an organ extraction on a prisoner who was still alive under orders from Chinese officials.

Eyewitness Accounts

Gutmann discovered a strikingly similar pattern through interviews with witnesses from approximately 20 Chinese camps in the heavily Uyghur area of Xinjiang. Between 2.5 percent and 5 percent of inmates disappeared each year, and those who did were usually men of or around 28 years, the age most organs mature and are at their healthiest. Another finding was consistent throughout the camps: All of the disappeared men were wearing brightly colored wristbands or vests—either orange or pink—after a camp-wide health check that included comprehensive blood tests.

“And then these people would disappear, and [the other prisoners] were not supposed to talk about them,” Gutmann said in an interview. The growing body of evidence and recognition of China’s chilling organ harvesting activities is encouraging to leading human rights advocates. Some have tracked and helped air the allegations for decades while watching most Washington officials and U.S. business interests turn a blind eye.

“People are finally waking up to the brutality of the CCP,” Rep. Smith said when introducing his anti-organ harvesting bill in February. “We in the United States—in the medical field in particular—must examine our moral complicity in this most heinous of crimes.”

“Under Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party, the cruelty of murdering [tens of thousands of] young victims every year—average age 28—to steal their organs is unimaginable,” Smith added. “China’s organ harvesting industry is truly barbaric.”

Considering China’s long history of persecuting religious minorities, the organ harvesting and genocides against religious minorities, however horrifying, don’t come as a complete surprise.

To Tohti, the issue is simple: Chinese Communist authorities don’t consider regular citizens outside of the party elite to be humans with intrinsic value outside of the government’s use or control.

“In the CCP’s eyes, only CCP members are human beings. All others are assets of the state or Communist Party,” he told Congress last year. “Therefore, they can do whatever they want. Using the human body for medical purposes is not new.”

Tohti cited a footnote in the book, “Mao: The Unknown Story,” about the early years of Communist control of China. The book cites an incident in 1943 in which a party official authorized another to execute three counterrevolutionaries because doctors at a hospital needed corpses “for dissection.” The footnote also notes Mao’s assistant was shown one of the corpses, a male of approximately 30 years, in a basin soaking in formaldehyde.

Condemning but Not Confronting

According to Gutmann’s findings, some 65,000 Falun Gong practitioners were murdered for their organs from 2000-2008 alone, long before Chinese authorities started greatly expanding the practice to Uyghurs. In 2020, a group of 12 independent human rights experts appointed by the United Nations declared that they were “extremely alarmed” by credible evidence of organ harvesting from Falun Gong members, Uyghurs, and other Muslims, Tibetans, and detained Christians in China. The experts called on China to promptly respond to the allegations of “organ harvesting” and to allow independent monitoring by international human rights mechanisms.

Yet China has managed to manipulate the World Health Organization, as it did during the COVID pandemic, to outright dismiss these charges of forced organ harvesting. As Nina Shea has reported extensively, Robertson found that WHO’s advisory anti-organ-trafficking task force, led by Harvard University transplant surgeon Francis Delmonico, was initiated by Huang Jiefu, a CCP Central Committee member who heads China’s transplant system. In fact, a government release shows that Huang “[o]n behalf of China proposed to establish a WHO task force” on organ harvesting, which Robertson argues was a way for him to influence its outcome.

American and international policymakers need to see through the deception, Shea argues, and clearly condemn the persecution against the Falun Gong and declare it a genocide. “Had this been done earlier, the Uyghur genocide might never have happened,” she said

Global forums such as the International Religious Freedom Summit and the IHLTS conference in April have helped draw more attention to China’s organ harvesting from religious minorities.

Despite the broader awareness and public condemnation, it’s far from certain—even amid the current fever pitch against China in Washington—whether Smith’s bill will pass the Senate and reach Biden’s desk for a signature. Some Chinese dissidents and human rights advocates believe there’s a reluctance to draw a bright line with Beijing because they find such horrific accounts almost too gruesome to be believed.

“It’s like another expression, it’s too good to be true—but the opposite,” Tohti told Congress last year.

Another phrase that comes to mind is “too big to fail.”

Ultimately, Congress, the State Department, and the U.S. medical establishment all share an institutional reluctance to confront China over these mass atrocities because the potential implications are so far-reaching and range from international trade to Taiwan. The House of Representatives’ House Foreign Affairs Committee held its first hearing on China’s organ harvesting practices in 2001, and the practice was raised in hearings as far back as 1996, but Congress has yet to pass any measures aimed at addressing it. The initial 2001 hearing was titled, “Organs for Sale: China’s growing trade and ultimate violation of prisoners’ rights.”

The international medical community for years also has failed to push back on Beijing in any meaningful way. The American Society of Transplantation, for example, has stopped short of calling out China or joining a boycott over evidence that it extracts organs from prisoners who are still alive. It maintains this stance even though it owns the journal that published Robertson and Lavee’s 2022 peer-reviewed piece on China’s organ harvesting on prisoners who haven’t been declared brain dead. When asked whether it will join ISHLT’s boycott of Chinese research, a spokesperson for ASTS said that the organization “has always condemned unethical procurement practices” and clarified that the journal operates independently from ASTS governance.

“ASTS has always strongly opposed unethical organ procurement practices, and we are concerned by the study by Dr. Lavee and Robertson finding that procurements in China are happening before the donors are declared brain dead,” ASTS President, Dr. William Chapman of Washington University in St. Louis, told RCP in an emailed statement. “ASTS firmly supports the dead-donor rule.”

Lavee said the response reflects the “double-faced attitude toward China” of ASTS and other international medical organizations, such as The Transplantation Society. The groups condemn unethical organ procurement practices in general but fall short of taking “any meaningful actions” to express their policy, he told RCP.

Buying Silence

Robert Destro, who served as assistant secretary of state for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor during the Trump Administration, has described a firmly rooted bias at the State Department against calling out China’s human rights abuses because there’s a belief it will do nothing to change China’s behavior and will only lead to more foreign policy tensions between Beijing and Washington.

“This culture is deeply embedded in the State Department, and it manifests itself as institutional foot-dragging,” Destro told Smith’s panel last year.

State Department officials, he said, resisted his efforts to convince then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to declare China’s persecution of the Uyghur people as genocide. He also said members of the U.S. business community “visibly blanched” when Trump Administration officials told them they were serious about halting the import of goods produced by Uyghur forced labor, including solar panels.

But human rights advocates warn that ignoring the barbarity will inevitably lead to even more persecution of millions of people, while adding the moral burden of Western complicity—and even financial support—for the repressive practices. For starters, they argue, federal authorities can work to halt China’s transnational surveillance and aggression against Chinese dissidents now living in the United States.

Just last month, the FBI arrested two men on charges they helped run a secret police station in New York City that Chinese government agents used to disrupt, track, and harass pro-democracy activists and others openly critical of Beijing. The nonprofit group that helped expose the station says there are six more like it operating across the United States.

And the U.S. government needs to do far more to ramp up its efforts to break through China’s Great Internet Firewall that prevents its citizens, especially religious and ethnic minorities, from organizing and gaining access to information on the Internet.

After months of resistance from several U.S. companies, Congress in late 2021 passed, and Joe Biden signed into law, the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which imposes sanctions on American entities knowingly facilitating forced labor in the Xinjiang region. In March of this year, the United States and Customs and Border Patrol reported blocking nearly $500 million worth of imports from entering American ports this year because they determined that they were made “wholly or in part” by Uyghur forced labor.

But far more enforcement of the measure is needed, along with additional visas, travel bans, and targeted sanctions on Chinese officials responsible for religious persecution, proponents say. Human Rights Watch and other prominent activists have urged the United States to do more to ensure that U.S. companies aren’t profiting from selling medical or surveillance products to China.

In 2017, the group discovered that Thermo Fisher Scientific, a Massachusetts-based firm that manufactures analytical and laboratory products, chemicals, and supplies, including those used in COVID test kits and vaccines, had sold DNA sequencers to Xinjiang police. Advocates believe the mass DNA collection is used for tracking Uyghurs, as well as organ-matching.

After two years of congressional and media scrutiny, the company announced it would stop selling human identification technology in the region. Two years later, the New York Times discovered that DNA-collection tools made by Thermo Fisher were continuing to flow to the Xinjiang region, with sales occurring through Chinese companies that buy the products and resell them to the police in Xinjiang.

More recently, the Intercept last fall uncovered a deal between Thermo Fisher and Tibetan police to purchase hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of DNA profiling kits and other supplies. That news broke shortly after two human rights groups documented vast Chinese government campaigns to collect DNA from ethnic Tibetans.

After several U.S. lawmakers demanded answers from the biotech company and asked it to halt sales in China, Thermo Fisher CEO Marc Casper was noncommittal and vigorously defended the DNA testing kits and parts sold to Chinese-controlled police in Tibet as “entirely consistent with routine forensics investigations.” But, as RCP reported, lawmakers, including Smith and Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, said the company’s willingness to defend CCP-controlled police practices raises even more concerns about its willingness to profit from sales to brutal regimes.

“I cannot underscore how necessary it is to follow the money,” Destro urged. “The Chinese buy compliance—they buy silence.”

This article is part of a three-part series made available via RealClearWire. Part I of the series may be found here.) Part III concludes The Long Road to Confronting China’s War on Religion.

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