Inside China’s hospitals and prison system, you can find one of the darkest stories of the 21st century.
If you received an organ transplant in China in the past few decades, there’s a strong chance it was harvested from an executed prisoner against their will. A shortage of organ supply opened up the doors for illegal organ trafficking and forced organ harvesting. Many of these prisoners are not murderers or rapists, but “prisoners of conscience” who were arrested for their political or religious beliefs, such as the peaceful practitioners of Falun Gong.
In October 1995, Wang Guoqi was working as a medical doctor for the Chinese Army at a prison in Hebei Province when he witnessed prisoner executions that changed his life. While still holding onto their last breaths, doctors were brought in to harvest the prisoners' organs for the purposes of a transplant.
"My work required me to remove the skin and corneas from the corpses of over one hundred executed prisoners, and on a couple of occasions, victims of intentionally botched executions," he told the US Congress in June 2001.
Over the past two decades, a stream of whistleblowers have left China and testified about the similar horrors they endured. As part of the Kilgour–Matas report, a private investigative report into allegations of forced organ harvesting in China, David Kilgour spoke to the ex-wife of a Chinese surgeon who removed as many as 2,000 corneas from executed Falun Gong prisoners.
“Usually these Falun Gong practitioners were injected with a shot to cause heart failure. During the process these people would be pushed into operating rooms to have their organs removed,” she recalled. “On the surface, the heart stopped beating, but the brain was still functioning, because of that shot. These people were [then] pushed to other operation rooms for removals of heart, liver, kidneys... After their kidneys, liver, and skin were removed, there were only bones and flesh left. The bodies were thrown into the boiler room at the hospital.”
The system is still shrouded in mystery and, as such, there is no smoking gun that conclusively proves the scale of the problem. It is also unclear how pervasive the problem is today. Although the Chinese government has admitted it harvested organs from prisoners in the 1990s and 2000s, it has insisted the practice ended in 2015. Chinese authorities now say they have switched to a fully legitimate organ transplant program that only uses voluntary donors.
However, many argue the statistics suggest otherwise, and the practice is ongoing.