Setting the Record Straight: The controversy over Dr. Ko Wen-je and “The Slaughter”
Here are my comments on the Taiwanese media frenzy over “The Slaughter,” including my clarification of any final ambiguities surrounding my interview with Taipei’s new mayor, Dr. Ko Wen-je. I have also made photos available of my email correspondence with Dr. Ko. They can be downloaded on my main website (scroll down to the bottom of the page). To order The Slaughter, go to Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Random House.
How did your book end up as a centerpiece of the Taipei mayoral campaign?
In “The Slaughter,” Dr. Ko describes visiting a mainland hospital to look into the quality of organ transplants in China for his clinic’s Taiwanese patients. After he became aware that Falun Gong practitioners’ organs were being used to source the transplants, Ko quietly attempted to introduce more transparency into the organ donation system in China. He failed, but in my book, I described Dr. Ko as a man of “singular courage.”
Somehow, many in Taiwan skipped over that part. In October, with Dr. Ko Wen-je looking good in the polls, partisan elements seized on The Slaughter to accuse Dr. Ko of being an “organ broker.”
Exploiting inaccurate, out-of-context, translations of my writing, the issue dominated Taiwanese media coverage for nearly a week, culminating in a press conference where Dr. Ko denied the press charges and portrayed aspects of my book as inaccurate and unauthorized.
Yet Dr. Ko was responding to a claim that I never actually made in The Slaughter. As my lawyer, Clive Ansley, stated: “No English-speaking reader to date has understood for one moment that Dr. Ko was acting as an ‘organ broker’”.
Did Dr. Ko show any interest in purchasing human organs or actually getting involved in the Chinese organ trade?
Would an organ broker have given me an interview? Of course not. Dr. Ko was simply concerned with the welfare of his clinic’s patients.
How did Dr. Ko become part of your book in the first place?
In July 2008, my research assistant and I initiated an interview with Dr. Ko because we had heard that he might know something about organ harvesting in China. Dr. Ko began with a rather generic story: A clinic with aging patients who need organ transplants. A surgeon who visits mainland China to scout out the quality of the care. The surgeon inquires at a hospital about transplant procedures and prices. After getting to know the Mainland doctors, they respond that his clinic’s patients will receive the discounted Chinese price.
People bargain in China. That’s not news. So the interview wouldn’t have made it into my book except for one critical twist: the surgeon was told that the Taiwanese patients, should they come to this hospital, would receive particularly healthy organs. Why? Because the organ “donors” were Falun Gong–that is, prisoners of conscience.
This occurred in 2004-2005, before any allegations of systematic organ harvesting from Falun Gong had surfaced. So the scale was a mystery. But Dr. Ko sensed he had stumbled into something terrible: Mainland doctors, in at least one hospital, were killing Falun Gong for their organs.
Perhaps other Taiwanese doctors were given glimmers of that same discovery. What sets Dr. Ko apart is that he tried to do something about it, single-handedly creating a standardized medical form that would force mainland doctors to actually enter the organ “donors’” identity. Dr. Ko thought this might drive the practice of harvesting Falun Gong underground, although, as he told me ruefully, it would “only remove 95% of the problem.” Over the years, Dr. Ko tried to get Mainland doctors to adopt the form. They refused. So Dr. Ko did something else. He spoke to a journalist.
That’s you. How exactly did Dr. Ko’s interview end up in your book? What was the process?
The entire process was outlined in my book: by prior mutual agreement, the conversation was confidential. I did not record it. And my memory for dialogue is actually pretty good, but memory alone clearly wouldn’t justify the account that you see in the book.
Over the years, my researcher called Dr. Ko occasionally. I also called him to ask whether a central database of Falun Gong practitioners existed in China. Dr. Ko responded that harvesting operated in an informal eBay-style system. His English wasn’t smooth on the phone, but it was obvious to both of us that we were discussing the harvesting of Falun Gong.
In June 2013, I decided to try to get Dr. Ko’s permission to publish his account as an “anonymous Taiwan surgeon.” I seldom run my writing by an interview subject before publication, but because we did not record the interview, my researcher e-mailed Dr. Ko an advance draft–karaoke bar and all–and posed the following questions in Chinese:
“1. Under the circumstances that we don’t mention your name, specific situations, or any details, is it okay to write this content?
2. Is his draft of the story (below) according to reality? Is it factual? Because at the time we didn’t record and didn’t ask you too much about this direction, so there are some situations we are not too clear about, we just remember the general drift. Could you take a look and tell us where the story has inaccuracies? If it’s incorrect, how should it be correctly stated?”
Dr. Ko’s response: “the story seems Ok.”
In January 2014, we asked Dr. Ko to allow his real name to appear with the account in The Slaughter, to be published in August. Dr. Ko’s response was: “OK, for what I say I can be responsible.” He then provided, upon request, a high-resolution portrait of himself to be published in the book. In short, Dr. Ko had three clear opportunities to say: “Just a minute, let me take a look at that account again.” The emails show that no substantive differences between what Dr. Ko received and what was published in the book–even after my publisher’s rigorous editing.
Over 100 witnesses were interviewed for my book. Some actually risked their lives–and the lives of their families–for this investigation. Not one has objected to The Slaughter. If Dr. Ko had expressed even minor reservations, I would have struck the account.
Do you hold a grudge over any of this? Do you think Dr. Ko does? And what do you see as the way forward with Dr. Ko at this point?
My best wishes go out to Dr. Ko and the people who have worked to elect him. I continue to believe that Dr. Ko is an ethical man who—in agreeing to be named in my book—was doing his part to end a human rights atrocity. It is unfortunate that Dr. Ko felt the need to distance himself from his account in the heat of a political campaign.
Yet people say a lot of things in political campaigns. I don’t take remarks personally. And, as my researcher suggested, it’s entirely possible that Dr. Ko and I have different recollections of some aspects of our interview. So I will address Dr. Ko’s concerns in the preface to the Chinese edition of “The Slaughter” and I have no problem sticking an asterisk next to certain statements. Perhaps Dr. Ko negotiated in China on behalf of his clinic and not individual patients. Perhaps Dr. Ko and the surgeons never visited a karaoke bar. Perhaps Dr. Ko never made appointments for Taiwanese patients on the Mainland.
But none of this changes the fact that Dr. Ko signed off on my account of the interview. And none of it alters my thesis: that we were discussing organ harvesting from Falun Gong. Why else would Dr. Ko have discussed Falun Gong harvesting being temporarily halted for the Beijing Olympics? I played with Dr. Ko’s standardized medical form on his computer. Did Dr. Ko create the form to defend the rights of murderers and rapists? No, when Dr. Ko said the form would only remove 95% of the problem, he was referring to Falun Gong. There can be no asterisk on this point.
Yet I still wonder: why did Dr. Ko sign off on my account during his election campaign? Odder still, why didn’t he have a prepared response when the account surfaced? The simplest explanation is probably correct–Dr. Ko is an honest man who, particularly in January 2014, was still a political neophyte, unprepared for the cynical personal attacks that accompany political campaigns.
Yet I’m guilty of that same naiveté so I can hardly stand in judgment on this point. We learned our lessons the hard way, you might say.
In your view, what’s the way forward for Taiwan?
I’m sure it feels quite different to anyone who worked in the campaign, but as a human rights investigator, I see this as just one more skirmish in a very long war over forced organ harvesting. The Chinese Communist Party would have loved to see Dr. Ko and I rip each other apart. Instead, my attorney’s legal responses exonerated Dr. Ko. I remain hopeful that he will further advance the cause of saving innocent lives in China.
But let’s talk about political reality. The Taipei mayoral position may be a stepping stone to the Taiwan presidency. Well, can a Taiwanese president openly acknowledge the harvesting of political and religious dissidents in China? Can a witness even negotiate with the Party on Taiwan’s behalf? A candidate for mayor of Taipei, and potentially, the presidency, might want to keep that in mind.
Yet no matter how normal, level-headed, even justified, those words might sound, isn’t this a sort of cancer, this endlessly creeping rationalization for not offending Beijing? And isn’t there a whiff of hypocrisy in this entire affair?
Elements in Taiwanese society were eager to accuse Dr. Ko of being an “organ broker.” Yet Taiwanese citizens regularly go to the mainland for organs, even though the odds are that a Uyghur, a Tibetan, a House Christian or a Falun Gong practitioner will be killed so that a Taiwanese citizen will live. So unless Taiwan bans organ tourism outright, as Israel has, shouldn’t Taiwan itself be characterized as an “organ broker state”?
Taiwan cannot change China, but Taiwan can follow its own values. If anything good has come out of the Dr. Ko controversy it is this: Taiwan has stumbled into something terrible. And more than any other people in the world, the people of Taiwan are in a unique position to know the truth.
UPDATE: Okay, as Foreign Policy’s recording of their interview with Dr. Ko demonstrates, there’s a pattern developing here…