Data stolen from chinese police in Xinjiang has led to thousands of pictures being leaked that show detainees held in forced labour camps. The Xinjiang Police Files, as they’re being called, have been investigated by the BBC to authenticate the images and are shown ' to offer significant new insights' into how the chinese government have treated religious minorities across the country. In 2019, a former detainee spoke to Grazia about her experience...
‘I was arrested four times,’ Jennifer Zeng, from Sichuan, China tells me over the phone from her home in America, where she has lived since 2011. ‘The last time, they sent me to a labour camp for one year.’
52 year-old Zeng is one of millions detained in prison camps across China, the most recent figure estimating over 1.5 million at present. Why? Because their beliefs don’t align with the Chinese government. And harrowingly, an international tribunal found that prisoners of those camps are being used to supply the $1billion organ trade in China.
In fact, they have been for 20 years, according to the court. The tribunal judgement has far-reaching implications for countries that share information, research and trade with China – including the UK. Yet, the international reaction has remained silent on the issue for decades.
Tribunal chairman, Sir Geoffrey Nice QC, criticised the British government in his final judgement for failing to act in efforts to avoid ‘an inconvenient truth’. That truth would be stories just like Zeng's.
If the media doesn’t pick it up, the people don’t know about it
‘I was arrested while asleep at home in the middle of the night,’ Zeng says. ‘The police had intercepted a letter I wrote to my parents-in-law that explained why I wanted to continue to practice Falun Gong after the government banned it.’
Falun Gong practitioners are one of many spiritual and religious groups that are being targeted by the Chinese government, including Uyghur Muslims who make up the second largest religious group detained. Followers become prisoners of conscience in China – tortured until they reform to the state-prescribed atheism that communist China sanctions.
Falun Gong is a meditation practice that draws parallels with Buddhism. It was a private practice in China for years, later brought to the public in 1992 and by 1999 had been taken up by nearly 100 million people. And so, because the amount of practitioners of Falun Gong outnumbered Communist Party members, it was banned in July 1999. Zeng was arrested the following year.
At the labour camp, she says she suffered horrific daily atrocities. Sharing cells designed for eight people with 20 prisoners, hand-knitting jumpers from 5.30am till midnight and consistently sleep-deprived. Her first day, prisoners were forced to squat for 16 hours under the baking sun, anyone that fell was hit by an electric baton. The aim is reformation, and after a one-year sentence, prisoners are given the choice to denounce their religious or spiritual practice, or stay in the camps.
But what Zeng didn’t know until years later was that physical and mental torture wasn’t all that was going on at the labour camps. In fact, she believes she narrowly escaped having her organs harvested during her time as a prisoner.
‘The day we were transferred from a detention centre to the labour camp, on the way we were first taken to a medical facility to undergo medical checks,’ Zeng says. ‘I told the doctor I had hepatitis C, and that it disappeared after I practiced Falun Gong. I told him that so they would see Falun Gong is good and the government should not crack down on it.’
Zeng found out about allegations of forced organ harvesting after her release in 2001 – something she was forced to ‘very painfully’ denounce Falun Gong to get – and she believes her admission about having had hepatitis C is what saved her life.
The organ harvesting is something the International Coalition to End Transplant Abuse in China (ETAC) has been fighting to stop since 2014. Last year, they initiated the tribunal that went on to prove forced organ harvesting was happening. Facing a global ignorance and pervasive secrecy within China, it was a long, hard struggle.
‘In 1999, the number of transplants that China was doing escalated incredibly,’ explains Susie Hughes, founder and executive director of ETAC. ‘People started questioning “What’s going on here?” but it hadn’t really dawned on anybody what was happening.’
In 2006, author Ethan Gutmann began investigating the persecution of Falun Gong practitioners – interviewing witnesses over the course of seven years. ‘Prisoners were telling Gutmann how terribly they were tortured, that they weren’t getting proper food, they weren’t allowed to go to the toilet,’ says Hughes. ‘But then also that they were blood-tested and organ scanned and it struck him as really odd. This picture started to develop that they were being tortured but also getting these medical tests.’
Investigators decided to call doctors asking specifically for Falun Gong organs, and it was admitted a number of times you could choose Falun Gong organs – and get them in as soon as two weeks, suggesting that people were being killed on demand for the purpose of extracting their organs. Then, in 2006 an investigation by David Kilgour and David Matas confirmed the dire truth. ‘There has been and continues to be large-scale organ seizures from unwilling Falun Gong practitioners,’ they stated in their research.
Since then, there have been multiple reports and groups formed with the intention to expose and end forced organ harvesting in China. And yet, the West largely remains ignorant to the issue. But why?
According to Hughes, there are a number of reasons. In the early days, ‘Falun Gong was so new to the West, people didn’t really know what it was,’ she explains, ‘and the Chinese government were saying it was a cult, that it was this terrible thing – so there was confusion to begin with. If the media doesn’t pick it up, the people don’t know about it.’
Then there’s the global integration of the transplant industry that means many countries are working together, and reliant upon each other, in researching transplant medicine. As such, this dependency has seemingly caused some to turn a blind eye.
‘There’s a lot of collaboration happening between the Transplantation Society – the leading body for transplantation internationally - and China,’ says Hughes. ‘They’re helping them develop a voluntary donation system, but in part, they’re ignoring the fact that there have been robust investigations and reports that have come out.’
In fact, former president of the Transplantation Society – Jeremy Chapman – called a 2016 report into forced organ harvesting ‘pure imagination’, stating: ‘Look at the sources of those documents. They are all Falun Gong.’
‘I saw that and thought, “What? Falun Gong’s sources?”,’ says Hughes. ‘My understanding is that it’s Chinese sources. So, we ran a check and of all the sources, something like two hundred pages. Ninety per cent are Chinese websites with a small percentage of what you could call “Falun Gong sources” – which are basically witness testimonies. So it’s not all Falun Gong sources…and why would you discriminate against victims and not allow them to testify and say what’s happened to them? It’s really wrong.’
‘You’ve got this strange situation when someone starts digging into it,’ she continues. ‘Why are certain people from the Transplantation Society saying that this issue is all fueled with political intent? That the investigators are all political when the investigators aren’t even Falun Gong practitioners?’
Seemingly, the entire issue is shrouded in secrecy, insidious agendas and a willful ignorance. ‘People who have the power to do something don't want to admit it is happening because then they know they have the obligation to do something about it,’ says Zeng. ‘I think many people don't want to bear this kind of moral obligation or responsibility and so pretend they don't know.’
So now that we do know, as individuals what can we do about it? According to Hughes, the first step is to talk about it. ‘One of the biggest challenges that we faced with such an unbelievable crime, is to help people accept that it’s happening,’ says Hughes. ‘It’s really important that people talk about it.’
People who have the power to do something don't want to admit it is happening because then they know they have the obligation to do something about it
And after that, our government and businesses must break ties with those associated with the Chinese transplant industry. ‘All hospitals and universities in America, the UK and everywhere else should immediately disassociate with China in relation to transplantation,’ she continues. ‘There shouldn’t be any collaboration, no research, nothing. Because you don’t know whether those organs are coming from people that have been killed, and we can’t be a part of that.’
And finally, Hughes suggests, we ask ourselves: am I in a profession, or do I have links to a profession, that could or should do something? Does my company interact with China in a substantial way, be it a medical institution or a travel company or a financial services business? ‘People can contact us if they’re not sure what to do and we can give directions,’ Hughes adds.
If you’re not in any of these professions – or even if you are – there is always the possibility of writing to your MP to demand government debate on the issue.
‘For such a long time, it was the Chinese survivor community who were the only ones knocking on the MP’s doors,’ says Hughes, ‘Everyone should be knocking on the MP’s doors and sending emails saying that this is a critical issue and you need to be doing something about it. The UK government should publicly condemn it, like the US and EU has, and look at transplant tourism and organ trafficking laws to make sure it’s illegal to receive organs from China. The government doesn’t move until the people want them to.’
To find out more about forced organ harvesting in China, click here.
To read Jennifer Zeng's book, Witnessing History: One Woman's Fight for Freedom and Falun Gong, click here.