Organ Procurement and Extrajudicial Execution in China: A Review of the Evidence

[Revised March 11, 2020 to remove repetitious material. My thanks to an alert reader.]

Here is a blockbuster report from Matthew Robertson, following close on the heels of the Final Judgment of the Independent Tribunal into Forced Organ Harvesting from Prisoners of Conscience in China. I know the first response of many will be to dismiss it without reading. These things are not pleasant to think about. But don’t do that. That’s irresponsible. This is a real thing.

The report lays out, with scholarly rigor (check out the appendices as well), the reasons for thinking that forced organ harvesting from prisoners—extrajudicial execution and removal of organs on demand to supply a lucrative organ trade—is occurring in China. Here’s a bare-bones summary. Read the report for details; this summary is not a substitute, and the writer is not responsible for what I write here.

  • There has been a huge growth in transplants and transplant facilities since 2000.
  • Procurement of organs from death-row prisoners, voluntary donors, and involuntary donors such as kidnapped beggars cannot explain even conservative estimates of transplant volume. (Executions under death sentences have declined considerably, not increased, since 2000.)
  • Data on transplants generally and on voluntary transplants in particular, contrary to general practice in other countries, is concealed, contradictory, or demonstrably falsified.
  • The Chinese government has no credibility in this matter, having provided shifting explanations over time. In 2001, it denounced reports of organs sourced from executed prisoners as “sensational lies,” while admitting in 2005 that organs did come from prisoners after all. In 2014, it announced that the source of organs would be solely volunteer donors as of January 1, 2015.
  • Falun Gong and Uyghur prisoners have reported widespread coercive collection of DNA and blood type.
  • Wait times for transplants are outlandishly short. “In organ transplantation systems with voluntary donors, recipients must often wait years for an eligible donor to become available. Yet in China, waiting times during the 2000s were remarkably short, sometimes measured in months, but often in weeks or days. Some medical papers refer to wait times of hours. The most parsimonious inference that can be made from this phenomenon is that vital organs from living donors were being made available on demand.”

This report is, above all else, a solid work of scholarship. Using standard social science methodology, it demonstrates that the most plausible hypothesis that explains the observations is that there exists, in China, a practice of widespread organ harvesting through extrajudicial executions of prisoners who are kept alive essentially as livestock until their organs are needed. Obviously, this is a disgusting conclusion few people would want to reach or believe. It is natural to recoil from it and to think it can’t be true. But read the report. It makes a solid case—solid enough that the burden is now on those who dispute the hypothesis to come up with a more plausible one.

Let me highlight here what it means to give this subject a scholarly treatment. It means to assemble a series of observations, doing the best you can given limitations on access to reliable data. It means then spelling out and applying a range of plausible assumptions to the known data to figure out what the unknown data might be. On one end we use the most conservative assumptions; on the other, perhaps some aggressive assumptions. In the middle, we have what the investigator believes is most likely. But this is all spelled out for public scrutiny and critique.

Next we ask, What hypothesis seems to best explain the data? And we prefer the parsimonious to the complicated; we prefer the hypothesis that itself requires the least amount of implausible assumptions.

And finally we say, OK, here’s what we think the hypothesis with the best fit is. If you don’t agree, specify where you think the data is wrong or why your hypothesis fits it better. This is how knowledge advances.

The point of all this is to say that the demand in some quarters for absolute proof is not consistent with the way either natural science or social science operates. You make observations and you propose a hypothesis to explain the observations. That hypothesis is not defeated by its lack of absolute proof; there is no such thing as absolute proof. It is defeated by a superior hypothesis or a challenge to the underlying data.

Let’s be clear on this point: this report cannot be refuted by anyone who has not read it and does not address its specific points. If you don’t want to read it, then don’t comment. (But do ask yourself why your skepticism is all one way: skepticism toward this report and others like it, but credulousness toward the statements of the Chinese government.) Contemptuous dismissal without engagement and serious counterargument should be understood clearly for what it is: complicity.

Nor can there be any intellectually serious argument about this using 240-character tweets. If you think you’ve refuted the report in a tweet, you are complicit. But I will gladly post on this blog any serious challenge to the report that actually engages with it. It will advance knowledge to know what the strongest counterarguments are and to make them public. (Pro tip: “Oh, that’s all just Falun Gong propaganda” is not a strong counterargument; you should be embarrassed to reveal that that’s the best you’ve got.)

The international community, mainstream media, and human rights NGOs have ignored or downplayed this issue for too long. My co-authored paper on Huawei’s ownership in 2018 got over 1,000 downloads within an hour of being posted online and my inbox was flooded with interview requests from the media. The New Yorker and the New York Times got a Pulitzer for their reporting on Harvey Weinstein, a single individual who, for all his contemptible acts, was not even accused, let alone found guilty, of actual murder. But when someone talks about a system of mass organ harvesting through extrajudicial executions of human livestock? Crickets.

Media organizations and NGOs that might be expected to take an interest seem instead to take an active uninterest. Major newspapers have squelched stories or refused to correct misleading reports. Big human rights NGOs have said, in effect, “We don’t know anything about this.” These are organizations that have been willing to offend the Chinese Communist Party in other contexts—these are organizations that have not hesitated to expose the Party’s at least quasi-genocidal policies in Xinjiang—so it can’t be explained simply by cowardice or co-optation, or otherwise evil motives.

This means that if we want to do something useful, we have to move beyond assigning blame and ask, What accounts for the reluctance of otherwise well-intentioned people to look this in the face, to read the reports, and to seriously think about what’s going on?

I don’t know of a simple and obvious answer. But just as Hitler famously said that it was easier to get people to believe a big lie than a small lie, so too it may be that people will more easily believe in the existence of a small crime than in the existence of a colossal crime. A 2007 book about Germany during the Holocaust was subtitled, “What Nobody Wanted to Know, but Everybody Could Have Known.” That is what we are confronted with here, even though the causes are different.

One factor is perhaps that reputable organizations, for good reasons, don’t want to be associated with false and sensationalistic stories. I have occasionally done work with major human rights NGOs—the kind excoriated by China for making stuff up just to slander China—and have been very impressed by their attention to getting things right and not exaggerating. I think the major media also generally try hard to avoid error, although they can be very reluctant to admit error once it’s been made.

But this caution can, it seems, easily slip into the view that whatever is sensational is therefore probably false—and that is part of the problem with accusations of organ harvesting. They are sensational.

We saw this when the reports of mass detentions in Xinjiang first came out: some people simply scoffed at the idea as impossible. There are very few scoffers any more; instead, the argument has shifted, with defenders no longer denying it’s happening, but instead claiming that it’s necessary.

But this shift has not happened with the organ harvesting story. Why? The Xinjiang story tells us that even sensational and inherently implausible stories—what? China locking up over one million Uighurs with no legal process?—eventually come to be believed if there is a reasonable amount of evidence. (And let’s remember that the evidence we have on this is pretty much all indirect; Adrian Zenz’s pioneering research consisted of things like looking at government procurement orders for barbed wire, electric stun batons, and Mandarin textbooks.)

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the issue has been essentially poisoned for Western organizations by its association with Falun Gong. Individual Falun Gong practitioners get sympathy for their persecution in China, but Falun Gong, whether we think of it as a group or as a movement or as a set of affiliated organizations, gets virtually none from people in human rights NGOs, the media, and academia. But it seems that Falun Gong people were originally the only people around who had both the resources and, most importantly, the motivation to try to investigate and bring this matter to light, and to keep pushing.

If the Falun Gong claim were more modest, it might have been better received. Or if the claim of organ harvesting had been made by a more respectable group, it might have been better received. But the assertion of organ harvesting suffered the double whammy of being both sensational and associated with Falun Gong.

This brings me back to this report and its importance. Here is what I want to say to serious media and human rights organizations: This is a genuine and admirable work of scholarship. Its sources and reasoning are clearly laid out. It is not about Falun Gong, although if you care about these things please note that it offers reasons for thinking organ harvesting may be taking place among Uyghurs, too.

You can no longer dismiss it as outlandish anti-Chinese propaganda. You are not being responsible journalists, or human rights activists, by treating this story as—in the words of one New York Times editor—“the outer fringes of advocacy”. There is no longer any excuse for not taking this seriously. Read the report. Go ahead and be skeptical, but don’t pride yourself on your skepticism unless you are equally skeptical of the Chinese government’s statements and statistics, and apply the same insistence on absolute proof to those.

I hope anyone who has reported on or condemned the Xinjiang detentions but is inclined to dismiss this issue will ask themselves why. (Looking at you, mainstream media.) Probably you used to think it was just the work of cranks. Read the report. Read the Final Judgment of the Independent Tribunal into Forced Organ Harvesting from Prisoners of Conscience in China, also just released this month. If you find the work flawed, tell the world how. But it is not the work of cranks.

In the end, all we can do is to assemble the data as best we can and propose an explanation that seems to provide the best fit. This report does that in a transparent way. It has made the case—not with absolute conclusive finality, which in any case is usually unattainable, but certainly to the degree that the burden is now on those who would dispute it to advance their reasons, their alternative data, and their counter-hypotheses with equal rigor, clarity, and transparency. And those who report on this should insist on that.

Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel of organ harvesting was entitled “Never Let Me Go.” The international community’s attitude here seems to be “Never Let Me Know.” It’s past time for a change.