1. Catholic Medical Quarterly Volume 67(4) November 2017


    Red Harvest: China’s Prisoner Organ Trafficking Attacked at Vatican Conference

    Peter Chojnowski, Ph.D.

    Author photoIn February 2017, a Vatican conference of human organ trafficking sponsored by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and involving representatives from 52 countries, exploded into controversy when the former deputy health minister of the People’s Republic of China, Dr. Huang Jiefu gave a presentation on the current state of organ trafficking in China.[1] Even though the Holy See has not had diplomatic relations with China since 1951, there has been a renewed effort by Francis I to improve diplomatic relations with the Chinese. The Vatican certainly went out of its way to ensure that there was no diplomatic incident at the Conference; the accommodation of the Chinese delegation included not allowing cameras in when Dr. Huang Jiefu made his presentation.[2]

    The controversy, which included the president of Israel’s transplant society, Dr. Jacob Lavee, publicly insisting that China allow the World Health Organization to conduct surprise inspections of Chinese prisons and to interview donor relatives in China, stemmed from China’s past admission that it used death row and prison inmates for organ harvesting “donors” and their inability to persuade the Vatican Conference that this violation of prisoner’s rights had actually stopped.[3] Whether the Chinese delegate to the conference was actually prepared to answer objections to both his own presence at the Conference and to the China’s claims that it has stopped the harvesting of prisoners’ organs was not clear. Dr. Huang Jiefu, who said that “I am fully aware of the speculation about my participation in the summit,” provided only two slides showing the increased number of living and deceased donors in recent years and China’s recent efforts to crack down on black market transplant activities.[4] Huang first publicly acknowledged the inmate harvesting organ program in 2005 and later said as many as 90% of Chinese transplant surgeries using organs from dead people came from executed prisoners. He has, on previous occasions, pledged that China has put an end to the program in 2015. Doubts about this have been raised, however, due to the known severe shortage of organ donors in China. Moreover, adding to the doubts of the skeptics, Huang’s colleague, Dr. Haibo Wang, stressed the sheer impossibility of trying to completely control China’s transplant activity since there are one million medical centers and three million licensed doctors operating in the country.[5] The Guardian interpreted the Chinese delegates remarks as tantamount to an admission that organ harvesting from prisoners is still taking place.[6] “They haven’t stopped the practice and won’t stop. They have a need for organ transplants that far outpaces the availability of organs,” Amnesty International East Asia director Nicholas Bequelin told the Guardian.[7] The very fact that the Vatican invited the Chinese delegation to a conference on human organ trafficking has been criticized. Australian medical ethics professor Wendy Rogers wrote in a protest letter, “The Pontifical Academy of Sciences should be aware of how the endorsements - even indirect - of prestigious foreign bodies are used by the Chinese propaganda apparatus to burnish the reputation of its unethical transplant system. We urge the summit to consider the plight of incarcerated prisoners in China who are treated as expendable human organ banks. There is no evidence that this practice has ceased in China.”[8]

    In an editorial published in The British Medical Journal on February 7, 2017, Rogers wrote that while China has vowed, in 2015, to stop using organs from executed prisoners, no new law or regulation has been passed banning the practice, nor have existing regulations permitting the use of prisoners’ organs been rescinded. In this regard, she wrote, “Prisoners remain a legal source of organs if they are deemed to have consented before execution, thus permitting on going retrieval of organs from prisoners executed with or without due process.”[9]

    It was Dr. Huang Jiefu in 2006, then Chinese Deputy Health Minister, speaking at a conference of surgeons in the southern city of Guangzhou, who was the first to acknowledge that executed prisoners were sources of organ transplants. At the time, he said, “Apart from a small portion of traffic victims, most of the organs from cadavers are from executed prisoners.”[10] This first official recognition occurred in November of 2006. In May of 2006, the Coalition to Investigate the Persecution of Falun Gong China had asked two Canadian lawyers, David Matas and David Kilgour, to investigate the allegations of organ harvesting of Falun Gong practitioners.[11] Falun Gong is a Chinese spiritual practice that combines meditation and qigong exercises; the practice is a combination of various Buddhist and Taoist traditions, which were publicly taught by Li Hongzhi in 1992. It emerged toward the end of China’s “qigong boom,” which saw a proliferation of similar practices of meditation, slow-moving exercises and regulated breathing. Although the practice initially enjoyed considerable support from Chinese officials, by the mid- to late 90s the Communist Party increasingly viewed Falun Gong as a potential threat due to its size, 70 million adherents as opposed to 60 million official members of the Communist Party, independence from the State, and their moral teachings.[12]

    The obstacles in the way of such an investigation were and are formidable. The International Committee of the Red Cross is not allowed to visit prisoners in China.[13] When a Human Rights Watch Report was released in August 1994, the report had to rely on acquired documents and “a large body of anecdotal material.”[14] The research of Kilgour and Matas was likewise hindered by the total lack of cooperation on the part of the Chinese government. When Kilgour met with someone representing the Chinese government, the official was only interested in denying the allegations and not in arranging for the visit of the researchers.[15]

    The impetus for the trafficking in the organs of executed prisoners was China’s move from a socialist to a market economy beginning in the year 1980. The health system was a major part of this shift.[16] Beginning during the leadership period of Deng Xiaoping, the Communist government began withdrawing funds from the health sector, expecting the health system to make up the difference through charges to consumers of health services.[17] Since 1980, government spending dropped from 36% of all health care expenditures to 17%, while patients’ out of pocket spending rocketed up from 20% to 59%.[18] According to the contacts which Matas and Kilgour had made within the Chinese medical community, state funding for hospitals was not enough to cover staff expenses for even one month out of twelve. The most obvious source of revenue was organ transplants. There is a global demand for organs because of shortages everywhere.[19]

    Deng Xiaoping’s market reforms not only affected the health sector, but also the military. In 1985, Deng issued a directive allowing PLA (People’s Liberation Army) units to earn money to make up for the shortfall due to declining government funding. Many of the transplant centers and general hospitals in China are military institutions, financed by organ transplant recipients. The money is used to finance the military budget.[20] It is the Chinese military which is the perfect facilitator of the organ transplant industry in China, since it has access to prisons and prisoners and their operations are even more secretive than those of the civilian government. It appears to be impervious to the rule of law.[21]

    It was the Epoch Times, March 17, 2006 interview with “Annie” and then a follow-up interview of “Annie” by David Kilgour, that gave substance and details to the persistent rumors about the Chinese organ transplant prison operation. “Annie” is the pseudonym for a one-time employee of Liaoning Provincial Thrombosis Hospital who testified that her husband worked in 2001-2003 at the Sujiatun Concentration Camp where he was heavily involved with organ removal operations from Falun Gong dissidents.[22] According to Annie, the organ removal surgeries that her husband was involved in began in 2001. By 2002, Annie’s husband found out that the people who he was operating on were Falun Gong members. Annie found out about the whole operation in 2003, the year before she left China in 2004. Annie’s husband was a neurosurgeon who removed corneas. She indicated that her husband estimated that he had done 2,000 cornea operations in his stay at Sujiatun.[23]

    The horrific aspects of this organ harvesting only revealed themselves when Annie began describing the procedure by which organs were harvested at Sujiatun. When asked by Attorney Kilgour whether the people her husband were harvesting from where “alive or dead,” Annie indicated that they were injected with a shot, given by a nurse, which would cause heart failure. According to Annie’s account, “On the surface the heart stopped beating, but the brain was still functioning, because of that shot.”[24] During this process, the victims would be pushed into operation rooms to have their organs removed. Once her husband had taken the corneas, the Falun Gong practitioners were then pushed into other operating rooms for the removal of their hearts, liver, kidneys, etc. Apparently, in later periods of time, doctors cooperated to remove all the organs when the victims were in one hospital room.[25] To quote the grim details of the interview directly, “The heart stopped beating, but they were still living. If the victim’s skin was not peeled off [for transplant] and only internal organs were removed, the openings of the bodies would be sealed and an agent would sign the paperwork. The bodies would be sent to the crematorium.”[26]

    The most famous attempt to legislate a response to the publicly acknowledged organ harvesting from Chinese prisoners, was that of Belgian Senator Patrik Vanjrunkelsven in 2006. After carrying out his own investigation of organ transplants in China by presenting himself as a patient in need of a kidney transplant from two hospitals in Beijing. One of the hospitals’ responses was, “Now is a good time to come [before the Chinese New Year in February]….At the time of Chinese New Year we like our prisons to be emptied. After the New Year we start up again, but then of course the waiting time will be a bit longer.” The hospital staff told the senator that the price of a kidney would be 50,000 Euros and one of the hospitals also offered to register him under a Chinese name and address.[27] After presenting his findings to the Belgian Transplant Association, the Liberal Flemish senator proposed for passage legislation to ban all forms of “organ transplant tourism” to countries where the transplants are performed in violation of fundamental ethical principles.[28]

    “Fundamental ethical principles” are what are necessary in any ethical, legal, or political evaluation of an organ procurement apparatus that completely instrumentalizes human organs in still living persons. In this regard, until our moral and ethical evaluations recover and employ the Aristotelian/Thomistic notion of “essence,” “nature,” and, even, “substantial form,” there is really no way of guaranteeing the maintenance of human dignity; without some understanding and acceptance of the unity of human beings as intellectual, spiritual, and physical beings, there can be no fundamental resolution of the relevant ethical questions. If the whole of the human body is “man,” then essential parts cannot be removed which will violate the integrity of that being that is “body and soul.” The reduction of human beings to aggregates of parts, not only opens the door to “mining” of “human resources,” but it also reduces humans to “thought” and “consciousness” with organic instruments which can be switched out from one person to another. That the Communist Chinese have brought Cartesian “modernity” to its logical conclusion should not be surprising since to deny to nature a divine creative imprint of form and the resulting orientation towards a final goal that transcends material “satisfaction,” is to disintegrate human beings into marketable “parts” that are for sale to the highest bidder.


    1. Ella Ide, “Vatican row as Chinese official invited to organ transplant meet” on AFP (February 7, 2017).
    2. “Sparks fly as Vatican conference challenges China on organs” for Associated Press on Gulf Digital News (February 11, 2107).
    3. “Sparks fly as Vatican conference challenges China over executed prisoners’ organs” on Zendesk.com (February 8, 2017).
    4. Ibid.
    5. Ibid.
    6. John Hayward, “Vatican Conference Blasts China For Organ Trafficking” on Breitbart (February 8, 2017).
    7. Ibid.
    8. Melissa Davey, “Medical journal to tract paper after concern organs came from executed prisoners,” in Guardian (February 9, 2017).
    9. Ibid.
    10. David Matas and David Kilgour, Bloody Harvest: The killing of Falun Gong for their organs (Woodstock, ON, Canada: Seraphim Editions, 2009), p. 24.
    11. Ibid., p. 11.
    12. Cf. David Palmer, Qigong Fever: Body, Science, and Utopia in China (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007) and, also, David Ownby, Falun Gong and the Future of China (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), Kindle Edition.
    13. Matas, p. 14.
    14. Human Rights Watch, “Organ Procurement and Judicial Execution in China,” August 1994 at https://www.justice.gov/sites/default/files/eoir/legacy/2013/06/14/china_0894.pdf
    15. Matas, p. 14.
    16. Louisa Lim, “The high price of illness in China,” BBC News (March 2, 2006).
    17. Jeffrey P. Koplan, “Public Health in China: Organization, Financing, and Delivery of Services” (July 27, 2005) at http://unpan1.un.org/intradoc/groups/public/documents/un-dpadm/unpan042406.pdf
    18. Matas, p. 71.
    19. Ibid.
    20. Ibid., p. 72.
    21. Ibid., pp. 72-73.
    22. Gary Feuerberg, “Going Public about Communist Concentration Camps” in Epoch Times (April 21, 2006).
    23. Matas, pp. 115-117.
    24. Ibid., p. 116.
    25. Ibid., pp. 116-117.
    26. Ibid., p. 120.
    27. Yves Dumas, “Chinese Hospitals Advertising More Organs Before February” in the Epoch Times (August, 12, 2006).
    28. Ibid.