31 July 2012

Random Harvest?

By Marguerite Finn

I wasn’t sure whether to write this column or not – but it is an important story and it should be told. Last week I attended a meeting in Norwich and learned for the first time about the outlawed and persecuted Falun Gong movement in China. So I looked into it some more and found out some very disturbing facts about which we all should be aware. What follows is what I understand to be the case. It has not been possible to obtain the view of the Chinese Embassy here because I did not want to risk the confidentiality and vulnerability of my sources of information.

What is Falun Gong? The short answer is that Falun Gong is a spiritual practice based on truth, compassion, tolerance, and includes five sets of meditative exercises. In July 1999, the communist regime in China began persecuting people who practiced it – by which time its practitioners numbered about one hundred million.

Falun Gong is quintessentially Chinese – an ancient self-improvement practice whose roots stem from China’s 5000-year-old cultural traditions. It combines the practices of meditation, special techniques of breathing and slow moving qigong exercises and emphasises morality and the cultivation of virtue through its central tenets of Truthfulness, Tolerance and Compassion.

Through moral rectitude and the practice of meditation, practitioners of Falun Gong aspire to better mental and physical health and, ultimately, spiritual enlightenment. It was first introduced into China in 1992 by Li Hongzhi. The practice spread quickly by word of mouth, as people saw the lives of those around them changing for the better. Sickly grandmothers were transformed into the epitome of health. Couples nearing divorce saved their marriage. The impact extended beyond the immediate family circle. Policemen who learned Falun Gong would stop taking bribes and workers would stop stealing from their factories. Members of the Chinese Communist Party started taking it up. The party recognised that better health for the community would mean less drain on the state budget for medicine and health care. It was considered to have a stabilizing influence on society ( http://www.faluninfo.net/).

So what went wrong? When Li Hongzhi gave his first public seminar in May 1992, he presented Falun Gong as part of a “centuries-old tradition of cultivation” but he suggested that the purpose of the practice should not primarily be physical health, nor the development of extraordinary powers, but rather it should be to purify one’s heart and attain spiritual salvation. Adherents of Falun Gong were encouraged to abandon negative thoughts, desires and behaviours such as greed, profit, lust, killing,violence, theft, deception, jealousy etc. They also refrained from drinking alcohol, smoking or drug taking, with the aim of refining the body into a higher form. The Chinese Government and the Communist Party took fright at the movement’s popularity and started to portray it as a religious sect or cult with “superstitious” views and saw it as a potential threat, outside of its control.

One day in 1999, some 15,000 Falun Gong practitioners took part in a demonstration to complain about some press reports that were unfavourable to the movement. They quietly sat down on the pavement and surrounded a government compound called Zhongnanhai in the centre of Beijing, which housed the places of residence and work of the Chinese leadership. Premier Zhu Rongji agreed to see a delegation from the protestors and instructed three members of staff to hear their complaints more fully. By 9pm that evening, the protestors had quietly made their way home. They did not shout slogans, carry banners or give out leaflets.The protest had been peaceful and non violent throughout. It is reported that they even collected their litter before they left. Nevertheless, many of them were arrested in the following days and taken to labour camps to be‘re-educated’. This was because one Chinese high-ranking official and former head of the Communist Party, by the name of Jiang Zemin, felt that Premier Zhuhad dealt with the protestors too leniently and he initiated a programme of persecution. Jiang Zemin forced officials at all levels to participate in eradicating Falun Gong.

Thousands of people were imprisoned and tortured for their belief and continue to be so to this day. A special government department called the “610 office” was set up to oversee and co-ordinate the persecution. Using the media and internet, the 610 office organised a propaganda campaign against a “heritical organisation” and
the rhetoric in the state-run press escalated to include charges that Falun Gong was colluding with foreign,"anti-China" forces – no doubt helped by the fact that the Falun Gong founder, Li Hongzhi, in 1997 applied for asylum in New York and left China for good.

In the years since the suppression campaign began, the Falun Gong adherents have emerged as a prominent voice in the Chinese dissident community, advocating greater human rights and an end to the Communist Party rule. So it seems that the Chinese Government’s bizarre over-reaction brought about the one thing they feared most – political dissent on a large scale.
But, there is an even darker side to this story – and it concerns the harvesting of human organs for use in transplants. Organ transplanting in China is a booming trade. The numbers of organ transplants performed in China – and the speed at which organs become available – has raised international concern about the source of organs. The Chinese Communist Party admits that organs are harvested from executed prisoners – but insist that they have given their consent.

The practice is now so widespread and streamlined that enquirers are promised a transplant within one or two weeks –as opposed to the many months and even years that it takes in Western countries. To be able to do this, they have to have access to a huge stock of living organ “donors”. There is mounting evidence that thousands of Falun Gong practitioners have been killed for their organs, which are sold and transplanted at enormous profit. The perpetrators are officials of the Chinese Communist Party acting in collaboration with surgeons, prison authorities and military officials. The recipients are predominantly those travelling internationally for health care. Strong circumstantial evidence points to adherents of Falun Gong being arrested in their tens of thousands in order to correct their way of thinking. When they are arrested they are given blood tests, ultra scans, and extensive medical tests – the results of which are recorded on a data base. This testing is not to their benefit as most are subsequently tortured for their belief – but blood matching is critical to organ donation.

Since 2006, witnesses have come forward and several international investigations have been carried out – the most widely publicised has been the report entitled “Bloody Harvest” http://organharvestinvestigation.net/ by two Canadian lawyers, David Matas and David Kilgour and another by the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Dr Manfred Nowak. Both investigations concluded that somewhere in the range of 40,000 to 65,000 Falun Gong practitioners had been killed in this way from 2000 to 2006. An international group of doctors, including transplant surgeons, have formed an organisation “Doctors Against Forced Organ Harvesting” (DAFOH) to protest the practice and promote ethical practices in medicine. (www.dafoh.org). It is important to remind ourselves that, as Human Rights Watch said in a statement: “None of the tens of thousands of Falun Gong practitioners detained, arrested or convicted, have been held in connection with violent actions or threats of violence. Instead, their “crime” is their belief in Falun Gong.”

These innocent victims are being held without trial in labour camps until their blood happens to match that of a prospective organ transplant recipient. The Falun Gong prisoner is then taken away and his organs are removed while he/she is still alive. Their bodies are quickly cremated to cover up the traces of organ removal.

The DAFOH are examining the fact that the distinction between life and death has been redefined, specifically for the benefit of transplantation. They say: “For heart transplantation to succeed, death has had to be redefined as brain death.Transplantation unquestionably pushed the boundaries of what doctors would and would not do and, in turn, society accepted the new definitions. For multiple organ donation to be achieved, something that would have been horrific in another time became not only tolerable but laudable under the new rules. The blunting of our visceral responses and the redefining of ethical boundaries are steps that could lead us, if we are not careful, to the ethicists’ slippery slope and must be recognized as such.”

If you think that the horrific situation in China could never happen here, I would like to mention a small article that I found at the bottom of page 16 in The Guardian on Saturday 28th July 2012. It said that the: “NHS moots a shake-up of organ transplant rules” and went on to say that the NHS is considering prolonging the lives of people who have no chance of surviving in order to harvest their organs. They are also thinking of making people opt out rather than in to the donor register– meaning that they would presume consent to organ removal unless people have actively opted out. It seems that the Welsh assembly has formally adopted this possibility.

One sentence sent a shiver up my spine. It talked about “New financial rewards for intensive care units for every organ they provide”. This conjured up a vision of market-driven competition between hospitals to reach targets for the number of organs harvested. Ethically, we could be standing on the tip of a very slippery slope.

The subject needs much debate and openness. We may not start persecuting Falun Gong in the UK, but the public needs to be constantly vigilant where the question of medical ethics is concerned. And of course, there is the other ethical question about using transplants to prolong life, when there are already too many of us on this planet – but that is a column for another day!

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