China’s Execution, Inc.

The People’s Republic Has Long Been Suspected of Selling Organs From Prisoners. Now One New York Doctor Knows the Rumors Are True.

When told that an American doctor was revealing his experiences, the laogai investigator, who asked that she not be identified because it would make her work in China impossible, pointed out that the opening comes at a critical time. Executions in China have surged to 400 in April alone as the Communist government conducts another of its periodic "strike hard" crackdowns on crime. During the most recent campaign, in 1996, more than 4000 prisoners were killed, she said.

Even in a normal year China executes more inmates than in all other nations combined, reports Amnesty International. In 1999, the confirmed toll reached 1263, according to the organization, which gathers its statistics from tallies published, for propaganda purposes, in government-run newspapers.

"It's for scaring criminals and scaring— controlling—society," the investigator says. The approach is known as "killing the chicken to scare the monkey."

All guts, no glory: Dr. Thomas Diflo, the first American doctor to talk publicly about the issue
photo: Rebecca Cooney
All guts, no glory: Dr. Thomas Diflo, the first American doctor to talk publicly about the issue

Executions often come in floods, usually around the holidays, according to the investigator. This week, with the Labor Day celebrations that started May 1, is viewed by Chinese doctors as a particularly good time to get an organ, but there's no better time than the Lunar New Year, she added. Most—perhaps 70 percent—of the hospitals performing the procedures are run by the military, which has the best connections to the penal system and can be present at executions, she explains. Money from patients purchasing organs is dispersed among those who provide access to the prisoner's body. Hospitals even pay judges to tip them off when they sentence a suitable donor to death. "The money goes to officials all of the way up the line," she says. "It goes to the courts, the people in charge of the prisons. It goes to the doctors, the hospitals, everything."

The Laogai Research Foundation reports that sometimes tens of operations are done at the same hospital on the same day for patients who are essentially walk-ins. China says it has performed about 25,000 transplants in 20 years, but makes no distinction between organs culled from executions and those garnered through accidents and live donors.

Forced labor from China's laogai has always been a source of cash for the country's rapidly advancing economy. And punishment doesn't necessarily end at the point of death, usually a single shot to the back of the head. Families are often forced to pay for the bullet used. But the laogai turned into Execution, Inc. less than 20 years ago after the introduction of Cyclosporine, an immunosuppressant drug that prevents rejection of organs by the recipient's body.

Wei Jingsheng, an agitator at Columbia University's Human Rights Center, testified before the International Relations Committee and Government Reform & Oversight Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives on June 4, 1998, that while he was on death row a guard confided that often organ removal is the means of execution in and of itself. Wei, who now heads his own foundation in Washington, D.C., stated that the guard told him, "There are almost no exceptions. They first are given anesthesia. Just the same as killing a pig. . . . We use cloth to wrap them up and bring them to the execution ground. No one cares if they are alive or dead."

Further, Wei said he had confirmed, through a plan hatched with a 20-year-old cellmate, that executed prisoners were being harvested against their will. The young man, whom he called Zhang, was to cry out, "I'm not sick, I don't need a doctor," if he saw a medical team equipped to harvest his organs waiting at his execution. If there was no evidence of this, Zhang was to scream as the condemned normally would.

After a long stretch of silence, Zhang sent the message. "My first feeling was of satisfaction, knowing that this evidence finally proved this practice. But this feeling was quickly replaced by another," Wei told the congressional committees. "My second feeling was of heaviness, knowing that this young man used his life to record an unbelievable crime. If I did not have the opportunity to tell others of this evil, if I did not have the opportunity to try and stop this evil from continuing, then I would have to apologize to this young man. All this time, I have deeply felt this responsibility. We must stop this practice."

Harry Wu spent 19 years in the laogai, and has also testified before Congress. His Laogai Research Foundation claims that when bullets are used, the target reflects the market: a shot to the head when a liver's wanted, a shot to the chest when corneas are in demand. Amnesty International also reports that a form of lethal injection gaining acceptance in China can be used to kill without damaging crucial organs, and can blur the line between life and death.

Young, nonsmoking prisoners are given blood tests and medical exams to assess compatibility with arriving patients, the investigator explains, and courts set execution dates accordingly.

Long before the U.S. and China clashed in the spy plane incident, the West was wary of the emerging superpower. Wei and Wu have edged the organ trade into the human rights spotlight on China, an arena already crowded with accusations of prison and child labor, coerced abortions, and suppression of religious minorities and Tibetan national aspirations. The nation's trade surplus with America, chilling of freedoms in Hong Kong, and occasional saber rattling at Taiwan have done little to soften sentiments in Washington. Business interests striving to engage China as a strategic ally, rather than competitor—through most-favored-nation trade status, membership in the World Trade Organization, and support for its bid to host the Olympics—may have a tougher row to hoe now that Diflo is delivering the goods on an explosive Chinese crime that touches on American soil.

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