There are some 32,000 people on waiting lists for an organ transplant in South Korea, but the vast majority of them will die before an organ becomes available.
As a further example, on average, a sick person needing a kidney transplant in South Korea has to typically wait five years. But if they go to China, they can have a kidney transplanted in as little as a few weeks.
It is believed that some 2,000 South Koreans travel to China for an organ transplant each year. There are reportedly 169 hospitals in China authorized to perform transplants, eight of which are known to be favored by organ recipients from South Korea.
These are some of the findings from the film The Dark Side of Transplant Tourism in China: Killing to Live that was first broadcast on South Korean TV in November last year.
As part of the film, three undercover journalists traveled to China seeking a kidney for a fictitious relative. There they learned that a liver can cost US$ 280,000 and a kidney about US$ 190,000 at a large unnamed transplant center in the northern city of Tianjin.
When the investigators first arrived at the Tianjin transplant center, they were met by a Chinese-Korean nurse who showed them around the center and its nearby accommodation complex.
One of the undercover journalists asked her how busy the center was.
“Yesterday one pancreas, three kidneys, and four livers,” the nurse told them.
They gave the nurse medical records for a fictitious person who has been waiting for a kidney transplant for three years.
On paper, it is meant to be illegal for a foreigner to have an organ transplant in China. Despite this, it appears to occur very openly. The nurse told the journalist that foreigners are not permitted at other hospitals.
“The government banned them since the Olympics in 2008. So regular hospitals can’t do it [for foreigners], but we are different. It’s a transplant center,” she said.
The reporter asked if the center was officially authorized.
“Well, the government pretends not to know about it. We have lots of foreign patients, so we do it as a matter of course,” the nurse said.
There were many people from the Middle East seeking a transplant, she added.
As part of the process, the nurse introduced them to a Chinese surgeon, who she said was trained in the U.S.
The doctor looked over their medical records and within a few minutes he said they could do the transplant right away.
“It’s so urgent, so we should do anything to get it done soon,” said the doctor, who then went on to give information on wait times.
“Some take a week; if they’re lucky, two days. But also possibly some wait one month or more… It all depends and the only way to make it shorter is to donate some cash to the center,” he said. “You pay the regular bill and pay the extra.”
The journalist asked whether it would be an option to get an organ from a young person.
“Needless to say, there is no way we can use an organ from an old person. Every patient is sure to want a healthy and young organ,” the doctor replied.
The hospital organized accommodation for the recipient’s family at a nearby high-rise building in hotel-like conditions that also had heavy security.
There and at the center, the investigators met and spoke with several South Koreans who had or were planning to have an organ transplant at the center.
“In Korea, you just wait for a much-needed organ forever. But in China, the organs come easy,” said one Korean organ recipient.
A South Korean official staying at the center’s accommodation told the journalists he was there for both liver and pancreas transplants. He was expected to stay there for two months.
The man said he had a friend who had a transplant at the same hospital 17 years earlier.
The journalist said that there were also people from the Middle East having organ transplants done.
During their time there, the journalists said operating rooms appeared to be performing transplants 24 hours a day.
None of the South Korean organ recipients they spoke to had any idea where the Chinese organs came from.
The journalists spoke to several South Korean doctors who were involved in sending patients to China for organ transplants. Most aggressively refused to comment, but one doctor said he stopped being involved with China when reports surfaced that the organs were being sourced there from prisoners of conscience.
Source of organs?
In the past several years, the Chinese government has tried to sell the idea they were moving toward having a functioning voluntary donation system and in 2015 declared they outlawed the use of prisoner organs.
But as the documentary reported, researchers outside of China say this is not the case.
The film looked at why it is believed that organs are coming from prisoners of conscience, predominantly Falun Gong practitioners who have been persecuted by the Chinese state since 1999, after which a sharp rise in the number of transplants in the country has been observed.
Falun Gong is based on meditation and slow moving exercises, and the practice has at its core three main principles: Truthfulness-Compassion-Tolerance.
Canadian researchers — former MP David Kilgour and human rights lawyer David Matas — said in 2006 that the source of the organs came from Falun Gong practitioners held in prisons and killed on demand. Other prisoners of conscience — Tibetans, Uyghurs, and House Christians — have also been targeted by the communists as a source of bodily organs, only to a lesser extent, they said.
In 2016, Kilgour and Matas updated their findings with investigative journalist Ethan Gutmann in another report that estimated there are 60,000 to 100,000 organ transplants performed annually in China.
Among the evidence used to calculate these figures was data from hospital revenue, transplantation volumes, bed utilization rates, surgical personnel, training programs, and state funding.
In June of 2016, a U.S. House of Representatives resolution was unanimously passed 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 in 2013. See more about that resolution in this report from NTDTV:
The Korean TV report included audio of “Annie,” one of the whistleblowers who first helped bring the issue out into the light in 2006.
From 1999-2004, Annie and her then-husband worked at the Thrombosis Hospital, Sujiatun District, Shenyang, Liaoning Province in China’s northeast.
Her husband was a surgeon who she said was involved in organ harvesting.
“He was in charge of sourcing corneas, some from those [people] who were still alive. I am speaking out their gruesome and dreadful surgeries. They dared to take livers, corneas, organs from Falun Gong prisoners,” she said.
“Some of them were still alive after their organs were extracted. Their bodies, dead or alive, were thrown into the incineration plant.”
Appealing to people’s consciences
In South Korea, many practitioners have been active in appealing to South Koreans not to go to China for an organ transplant.
A Falun Gong practitioner named Kim Gwangha managed to escape China and found safety in South Korea. He told the investigative journalists what he saw while he was being held in prison because of his beliefs.
“In prison, I saw practitioners of Falun Gong tortured to death,” Kim said. “One night, somebody came and took away the extracted organs in a box.”
In prison, they knew of organ harvesting, he said.
Kim also had some advice for South Koreans.
“Whether you believe in God or not, avoid trading with evil at all costs,” he said.
The journalist went with another Falun Gong practitioner into China itself and helped her search for her mother, who it is feared had been disappeared by state security. They were unable to find her.
For more on the persecution of Falun Gong, watch this short documentary by Swoop Films:
The journalist also investigated a contraption called the Primary Brain Stem Injury Machine, or the “brain-death machine,” patented by Wang Lijun — a high-level Chongqing police officer once heavily involved in China’s transplant industry.
Wang later attempted to defect to the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu in 2012 after a fallout with Communist Party heavyweight Bo Xilai.
The brain-death machine Wang patented forces a large metal rod to hit the temple area of a person’s head causing death to the brain. Meanwhile, the organs remain in good condition to be efficiently harvested.
The patent is now held by the Chinese military and the machine, as the South Korean investigators found, has evolved.
A Chinese researcher told them that there have been three versions built. The journalists asked the researcher what the machines are used for.
“This would cause brain death, but the other organs are not damaged,” the researcher told them.
Back in South Korea, the investigative journalists built a version of a brain death machine based on plans they acquired.
After it was built, they invited Lee Seungwon — a respected South Korean surgeon — to look at the machine.
Lee said he was certain what the machine was used for.
“It’s just to extract human organs intact, I am quite sure. Why else cause brain death to humans?” Lee said.
The documentary was produced for the weekly program Investigative Report Seven by TV Chosun. It follows other films investigating organ harvesting in China, such as “Hard to Believe, Harvested Alive, and Human Harvest.
Watch Leon Lee, Human Harvest director, receive an award for his film in this video from Peabody Awards’ YouTube channel.