Stories from the New China (and beyond)

How many harvested?

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Remarks on the 10-year anniversary of the Falun Gong persecution, chaired by Edward McMillan-Scott, Foreign Press Association, London. UPDATE: See new post for somewhat revised figures.

  • Ten years ago today the Chinese public security bureau was dispatching plainclothes agents to Falun Gong exercise sites across the country, practitioner phones and computers were being hacked and monitored, and secret orders were being circulated to Chinese Communist Party cells across the country. 43 days later, the 6-10 office, one of the most terrifying secret police agencies ever to receive extra-constitutional powers was founded. 40 days later, on June 20, an unprecedented mass-scale arrest began, employing entire stadiums nationwide.
  • Western journalism has never quite grasped the scale of the war. On April 25th they took their cues from the Chinese government and reported that Falun Gong had set out to “surround” Zhongnanhai. (That’s false, and I would be happy to get a question on that). By July, the Western media’s assumption matched the Communist Party’s: This war will be short. Falun Gong is finished. Perhaps that’s why–as the years passed and the war did not end, and the Falun Gong body-count climbed to over 3000 confirmed dead–western media coverage simply dropped off. So when charges of organ harvesting emerged in 2006, you can count the number of American press organs that seriously reported on it on a single hand.
  • I’m referring to the surgical removal of a Falun Gong prisoner’s retail organs, kidneys, liver, corneas, occasionally the heart or lungs. Usually the operation takes place while the person is still alive. A higher dose of anesthesia or the procedure itself, kills them.
  • David Kilgour and David Matas published a comprehensive study on this subject. Using official Chinese numbers, they extrapolated that between 2000 to 2005, there were 41,500 unexplained transplant operations. They believed the source was Falun Gong practitioners. Yet if you use a Science Ministry estimate, the numbers drop to 30 thousand. Variances in the official Chinese numbers are sadly predictable, and of course, the  official counts may well be completely omitting transplants from practitioner sources. There is nothing wrong with Kilgour and Matas’ method of construction, except that it is built upon the political quicksand of Chinese official sources.
  • Two years ago I began the research for a comprehensive history of the clash between the Chinese State and Falun Gong. I did extensive interviews, often for a day or two, of over 100 people. I did not expect organ harvesting to feature heavily in the book. About 50 of my subjects were Falun Gong refugees from the “Laogai System” (defined here as Labor-camps, prisons, and long-term detention facilities). Something curious emerged: About 30% of my subjects had been given inexplicable medical exams: Expensive and unnecessary blood tests. Detailed examination of their “retail” organs without corresponding or routine physical checks. Close physical examination of the corneas, with no attempt to check visual brain function. Only half of these refugees could be plausibly be considered true candidates for harvesting: the others were too old, too worn down by torture and hunger striking-yet this cadre of 15% had clearly been assessed for harvesting. My first results were published in the Weekly Standard in November 2008. Fifty subjects would be a statistical trifle in most consumer studies. But wartime studies, and intelligence operations often have to make do with far less. And there’s a deep human need for numbers, so with my remaining time, I’ll supply some provisional findings.
Two caveats:
  • One, no single number of fatalities from organ harvesting. No false precision. I want to build a plausible range of fatalities.
  • Two, plausible numbers should be matched with plausible scenarios.
Let’s get started.

Starting estimates
Low estimate
High estimate
Total prisoners in Laogai System at any given time
Falun Gong base population in 1999
  • Now, we need to know how many Falun Gong are in the Laogai System at any given time, and how many Falun Gong have been in at some point. Official Falun Gong sources aren’t much help here. On one hand, U.N. representative Manfred Nowak has repeated the Falun Gong estimate that 50% of all prisoners in the Laogai System are practitioners. So at least, two million. On the other hand, the most commonly used Falun Gong figure is 100,000 practitioners incarcerated at any given time. Both statements can’t be true.
  • Let’s try another way. Based on my interviews, and practitioner recall of their particular situation in the Laogai system, I estimate practitioners represent about 25%-30% of women and 10%-15% of men. So on the low end, practitioners represent on average, 15% of the Laogai System at any given time. On the high end, I estimate 20%.

Average Falun Gong in Laogai System at any given time
% Falun Gong in Laogai System at any given time
% of Falun Gong 70m base in Laogai System at any given time
Falun Gong in Laogai System at any given time (on average)
  • How many practitioners have been in the Laogai system at some point in the last ten years? Based on my interviews, I come up with a three-year average term (actually three years and four months). Low end, 1 out of every 30 practitioners. High end, about 1 in 15.

Total Falun Gong in Laogai System 2000-2009
Replacement rate of Falun Gong in Laogai System
% Falun Gong 70m base in Laogai System at some point
Total Falun Gong in Laogai System at some point
  • How many Falun Gong were examined in the Laogai System?

Falun Gong examined in Laogai System
Percentage of Falun Gong examined in custody
Falun Gong examined in custody
Percentage of Falun Gong examined “for show”
Falun Gong examined as serious candidates for harvesting
  • How many of those examined were actually selected for harvesting? Well, all this testing was not free. At the high end, I am estimating that Falun Gong testing cost over half a billion dollars.

Notional costs
Cost to examine one Falun Gong “for show”
Cost to examine 50% of Falun Gong examinees  “for show”
Cost to examine one Falun Gong for harvesting
Cost to examine 50% of Falun Gong examinees for harvesting
  • And this is, after all, “illegal activity”–the profits must be high enough to justify those risks. In my judgment, a profit rate of at least 50%. To hit that rate, on the low end, Falun Gong practitioners had to be harvested at a rate of 2.5%, or 1 out of 40 of all practitioners who were being examined.

Profit margin
Low (2.5%)
High (15%)
Value of one harvest
Hospital cost percentage of profit
Value of one harvest minus hospital costs
Value of total Falun Gong harvested 2000-2009
Value of total Falun Gong harvested 2000-2009 minus costs
Profit margin of Falun Gong harvest
  • The low end makes sense, but what of the high end number? That’s harder to justify; I have speculated that it is 15%, based on vague recollections of practitioners regarding fellow Falun Gong prisoners who disappeared and so on, but I freely admit that it could be significantly higher than that. No serious analyst can completely dismiss the persistent rumors of a large camp, possibly home to a million or more hard-core, “non-transformable” Falun Gong practitioners, located in north-west China (or occasionally, said to be in the north-east). Approximately 25% of the Falun Gong Laogai System refugees mentioned having heard the rumor. Several explicitly remember guards brandishing it as a threat. But that aside, based on the data we have: How many Falun Gong have been harvested?

Gutmann estimate total
% Falun Gong examined in custody selected for harvesting
Total Falun Gong harvested
Total Falun Gong harvested out of total Falun Gong
  • Either way it’s a low figure, a fraction of a tenth of a percentage point on the low end, a twentieth of a percentage point on the high end. What may be more jarring is the differential between the high and the low. Fair enough. Given the uncertainties in the process, the evidence does not justify higher precision. Still it’s interesting to compare a median of my survey-based findings–87 thousand–to Kilgour/Matas’ estimate based on government numbers (which I have brought up to 62 thousand by premising three additional years of harvesting).

Gutmann estimate compared with Kilgour/Matas estimate
Gutmann estimate: median Falun Gong harvested 2000-2009
Kilgour/Matas estimate of Falun Gong harvest 2000-2005
Kilgour/Matas: Falun Gong harvest per year
Kilgour/Matas estimate with three additional years
Discrepancy between Gutmann and Kilgour/Matas estimate
% Discrepancy between Gutmann and Kilgour/Matas estimate
  • The two methodologies are completely different. Yet the discrepancy is only 29%, or 25 thousand practitioners.
  • Now let’s premise a scenario in which these fatalities occurred. During a mass medical exam in early 2002, Jia Xiarong, a middle-aged female prisoner who came from a family of well-connected officials, told Jiang Tian, a practitioner: “They are doing this because some aging official needs an organ.” I believe that Jia was right, just a year or two late. This program started from the top because a handful of aging cadres needed new organs. The military hospitals knew that practitioners-prohibited from smoking or drinking-had robust immune systems and healthier organs than the average prisoner. Perhaps it wasn’t all that scientific; there’s a widespread belief in the benefits of chi-gong among the top Party membership. For all the “evil cult” rhetoric in the Party meetings, there was even a residual belief that virtuous behavior promotes health. So an exception was made, perhaps for a few military hospitals. Yet organ transplants are  profitable: averaging at about 50,000 USD, potentially as high as 200,000 USD per practitioner, if several foreigners were being serviced simultaneously.
  • It’s easy to imagine what happened next. Military hospitals across China got in on the act, followed by civilian hospitals. Advertising to overseas markets grew along with organ tourism, supply and demand operating in tandem, pushing the boundaries, building an industry worth perhaps half a billion dollars per year, the majority of the money received in American currency and Yen.
  • No genocidal conspiracy then-not in 2000, not at the inception: Practitioners were a problem for the state, but not a fatal one. “Transforming” practitioners en masse was still considered to be feasible. Falun Gong was floundering in the West. No had yet called for the fall of the Party. It was just business. But over time, with Falun Gong hijacking Mainland television signals, with the publishing of the Nine Commentaries, with western Falun Gong building media and disseminating it into China, Falun Gong prisoners had become the factory equivalent of drums leaking toxic waste-costly to keep and too dangerous to be dumped. But the Chinese State had an option that chemical companies with a bunch of leaking drums don’t have: They had a buyer, a way of making a profit: the organ tourists of the West. We are the demand that drives the industry.
  • In Western political circles, it is argued-quietly of course-that we have no point of easy leverage on this problem, no ability to undo what has been done, no silver bullet that can change the Chinese regime. Perhaps not. But we could ban our citizens from getting organ transplants in China. We could boycott Chinese medical conferences. Sever medical ties. Embargo surgical equipment. And refuse to hold any diplomatic summits until the Chinese put in place an explicit, comprehensive database of every organ donor in China.
  • The first step in that process is to drop the pretense that “we just don’t know.” So I welcome your questions and comments on the data that I have just presented.
London, April 28, 2009

Written by eastofethan

April 30, 2009 at 10:21 am

2 Responses

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  1. […] in 2009, I gave a talk at the Foreign Press Association in London. I’ve lost 35 pounds since then (made you look!) and I […]

  2. […] the population of the laogai far exceed the number of “officially recorded inmates.” Researcher Ethan Gutmann puts a low number for the labor camp population at 4 million and a high number at 6 million. He […]

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