When documentary-film producer Kay Rubacek first heard about state-sanctioned live organ harvesting in China, she found it hard to believe.
That was around the time prominent Canadians David Kilgour, a former Canadian Secretary of State (Asia-Pacific), and David Matas, a respected human rights lawyer, released a 140-page report in 2006 that stated large numbers of imprisoned Falun Gong practitioners were being killed for their organs in China.
“I’d been following the persecution of Falun Gong since it started in 1999, and I had become a bit desensitized to stories of torture by people who had experienced it,” said Rubacek, who first took up the Chinese spiritual practice herself in 1998 when she was living in Sydney, Australia.
“But live organ harvesting, killing innocent people for their body parts, was like something I could never have imagined — it was like a new low — it was quite devastating to think that it could be possible.”
Rubacek said that her contacts in the Australian media found it difficult to believe state-sanctioned organ harvesting in China was occurring. As a result, the issue did not gain the media attention that it warranted.
Now, 10 years later, Rubacek says that has changed due to persistent and credible reports on the issue, including updates on the Kilgour-Matas report and an investigative book, The Slaughter, by Ethan Gutmann published in 2014.
In June, Gutmann and the two Canadians released their 817-page report titled Bloody Harvest/The Slaughter: An Update, where they found that organ harvesting in China is much worse than previously thought.
Instead of 10,000 organ transplants being done per year as quoted by Chinese officials, the new report says that around 60,000 to 100,000 transplants are performed per year in China.
During a June 23 testimony at a joint subcommittee of the U.S. Congress, Matas, the human rights lawyer from Winnipeg, told American lawmakers: “The ultimate conclusion of the update is that the Chinese Communist Party has engaged the State in the mass killings of innocents, primarily practitioners of the spiritually-based set of exercises, Falun Gong, but also Uyghurs, Tibetans, and select House Christians, in order to obtain organs for transplants.”
That report attracted media attention, giving the issue more widespread coverage than it had previously.
Rubacek herself has produced Hard to Believe, an award-winning documentary on organ harvesting in China that was shown on PBS last year and is now available in North America via different digital platforms, such as iTunes and Amazon Instant Video.
Watch a trailer for Hard to Believe by Swoop Films here:
But the main crux of Hard to Believe isn’t about the evidence revealing that the killing of prisoners of conscience is indeed occurring in China. That has already been done by the reports. The film is about the lack of attention the media has given the issue over the years.
Hard to Believe’s Emmy Award-winning director Ken Stone said he had had virtually no knowledge of the practice of Falun Gong, and hadn’t even heard of the term “live organ harvesting.”
“I was pretty skeptical when I was first approached to do a documentary about it,” Stone said in a statement.
“When I saw all the information about allegations that prisoners of conscience have been killed so their organs could be transplanted, I realized I had stumbled on a gruesome murder mystery: Tens of thousands of murders may have been committed, and the mystery is that so few people are paying attention,” he said.
Since last year, Rubacek, who is now based in the U.S., has entered Hard to Believe at film festivals, where many of those in the audiences had not been exposed to the issue before.
“I have seen that look of shock come up consistently on people’s faces after they watch the film,” said Rubacek.
“It is the shock that this could possibly be happening, and it is an even bigger shock when they see the evidence, and then it is like: ‘Okay yeah, we [as in humanity] have hit a new low’,” said the 37-year-old.
Chinese officialdom responds to increasing scrutiny
Under pressure to declare where they sourced their organs, Chinese officials several years ago said they used body parts from convicted death row criminals after their execution.
But due to the Chinese criminal prison population’s health status — i.e., high rates of hepatitis B and HIV infections — they are not a reliable source for body organs, say activists.
Meanwhile, Falun Gong practitioners — known for their healthy, clean living — who have spent time imprisoned in China’s “Laogai System,” consistently report having physical examinations that checked out the condition only of their “retail organs.”
Chinese officials claimed in 2015 to have shifted away from relying on executed prisoners as a source, and that they successfully moved to a voluntary organ donation system.
As revealed by media reports, prisoners could also “voluntarily” donate their organs. “They just reclassified prisoners as citizens,” Huige Li, a Chinese-born doctor at the University of Mainz in Germany, told The New York Times.
Voluntary organ donation is also culturally taboo for Chinese.
Meanwhile, waiting time for an organ in China remains only a matter of a few weeks and, according to the recent report, is occurring on an industrial scale. In the West — which has functioning organ donation systems — the wait can be years for a patient to receive a matching organ from a deceased donor.
Watch this TEDx Talks video published in April this year where Matas and Kilgour talk about the evidence that says that organ harvesting is occurring in China:
But the big challenge now, Rubacek says, is how organ harvesting in China can be stopped.
“People are still passing the buck because it is a really tough one to change, but I have seen a shift in government willingness to do something,” Rubacek said, citing a U.S. House of Representatives resolution that was unanimously passed June 13 that urged the Chinese government to stop harvesting the organs of prisoners of conscience, and end the persecution against Falun Gong.
The European Parliament passed a similar resolution three years ago.
“Among politicians, there is a growing acceptance that [organ harvesting] is happening, and you can see that through the resolutions there has been a shift,” she said.
“There’s nothing law binding — but it is a lot better than it was.”
Rubacek said the stance over the issue from the international transplant industry — in the form of The Transplant Society (TTS) — is probably a greater concern.
“TTS are in a very difficult situation because no one else has stepped in, the government hasn’t stepped, everyone has left it up to the medical professionals to resolve,” she said.
The TTS has committed itself to engagement with Chinese medical professionals in the hope that this will lead to ethical reform in China’s transplant industry.
During the aforementioned June 23 joint subcommittee of the U.S. Congress, Dr. Francis Delmonico, past TTS president (2012 – 2014), told American lawmakers that it is not the role of the TTS to verify what is occurring in China. Dr. Delmonico also confirmed that the TTS doesn’t have access to military-run hospitals where much of the organ harvesting is believed to be occurring.
“I’m not an apologist and I am not here to tell you not to worry, I’m not here to verify, that’s not my job,” said Dr. Delmonico.
“My job is to tell you that the international community is trying to make change in China and work with those professionals that want to develop a system that conforms with the guiding principles with the World Health Organization and the Declaration of Istanbul. That’s my job,” he said.
Watch U.S. Representative Christopher Smith question Dr. Delmonico during the joint subcommittee in this House Foreign Affairs Committee video:
In an interview with Catholic news website ucanews.com, investigative reporter Gutmann said that TTS’s approach to encourage reform in China has failed.
“Going in with a soft engagement plan has worked for the TTS in other countries which are developing their transplant practices, but it hasn’t worked in China,” said Gutmann, who also features in Rubacek’s documentary.
“When we start seeing transplant hospitals shutting down, then the TTS are being effective. That is not happening now.”
Controversially, the TTS is hosting its biennial transplant congress on Chinese soil starting August 18 in Hong Kong. As part of this, they have invited China’s leading transplant expert, Huang Jiefu, as a plenary speaker for the event, a move condemned by Doctors Against Forced Organ Harvesting (DAFOH), a leading medical advocacy group.
“Huang previously stated that up to 90 percent of China’s transplant organs were harvested from executed prisoners,” said a statement by the group.
“Under his tenure as deputy minister of health, China’s transplant numbers grew exponentially, coinciding with the nationwide outbreak of persecution and detention of prisoners of conscience after 1999, and reports of forced blood testing and medical examinations of detained Falun Gong practitioners targeted for their beliefs,” DAFOH said, adding that Huang himself performed more than 500 liver transplants.
Rubacek said the conference is legitimizing China’s transplant industry.
“TTS is trying to create reform within a system, while not acknowledging that the system has a problem,” said Rubacek.
“There will be no changes in the system until China allows independent investigations [of their transplant industry], and until others [such as government or the TTS] pressure for it,” she added.
Rubacek said that they have now produced a Chinese version of Hard to Believe that will be released August 14. It will be made available to Chinese doctors at the Hong Kong transplant conference. She added they will try to give people inside Mainland China the opportunity to see the documentary via online platforms.