It is illegal there to be a member of the group. The medical facility at Sujiatun is supposed to be ground zero of the worst abuses, a hospital of horrors where doctors extracted organs from more than 2,000 Falun Gong adherents before incinerating their bodies in the boiler room. But after visiting the hospital, Glen McGregor is unconvinced that these atrocities ever occurred
Shehenyang, China -- On a sunny morning last month, two men in blue suits ferried wheelbarrows full of coal into the boiler room that heats the wards of the Liaoning Provincial Thrombosis Hospital. Inside the room, the workers shovelled coal into the chutes to keep the furnaces burning.
Four years ago, it is alleged, these hospital boilers served a sinister purpose. They were used to incinerate the bodies of practitioners of the spiritual movement Falun Gong, it is claimed.
This hospital, in Sujiatun district of the Shenyang City in northeastern China, allegedly functioned as a death camp, where thousands of Falun Gong prisoners were killed and their body parts stolen.
At Sujiatun, surgeons removed the corneas of living prisoners for transplantation, the allegation maintains. More than 2,000 Falun Gong practitioners were killed at Sujiatun, it is claimed, with their bodies burned on site and the furnace chutes stuffed not with coal but cadavers.
If true, the charge would make Sujiatun the point where two insidious human-rights abuses converge: the harvesting of organs from the unwilling, and the persecution of religious minorities.
And while the numbers alleged don't come anywhere near the death tolls of Treblinka or Auschwitz, the sheer evil of these purported crimes at Sujiatun certainly evoke Josef Mengele and the worst of the Nazi atrocities.
Still unknown, however, is whether the systemic execution and organ-harvesting of Falun Gong practitioners at Sujiatun -- or elsewhere -- has ever actually happened.
With the 2008 Beijing Olympics approaching and China increasingly in the crucible of global media attention, the allegations are fiercely argued by the Chinese government on one side and Falun Gong on other.
That Falun Gong practitioners have been abused and mistreated is without doubt. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the UN's Special Rapporteur on torture have all documented credible reports of arrests, detention and torture of Falun Gong in China.
Yet, the accusation that China systematically executed Falun Gong prisoners to harvest their organs is a substantial escalation that none of these groups have confirmed.
The charge is supported, however, by two prominent Canadians, former MP David Kilgour and Winnipeg lawyer David Matas, whose 2006 report (updated this year) concluded that Falun Gong practitioners were being killed for their organs.
Since the report, Mr. Kilgour has travelled the world to decry organ harvesting and the treatment of the Falun Gong. Western journalists routinely repeat the Kilgour-Matas findings as fact.
But what actually happens behind the walls of Chinese prisons and labour camps is difficult to ascertain. China and its government are often impenetrably opaque to western reporters, who have come to regard its official messages on Falun Gong as little more than state-controlled spin.
China offers blanket denials that Falun Gong members are executed for their organs. But it also contests many of the well-documented charges about the mistreatment of Falun Gong, an apparently benign spiritual movement.
It is also difficult to report objectively on Falun Gong. The Falun Gong adherents I have encountered seem allergic to criticism and react harshly to media coverage that contradicts them.
The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation set off an international furore this month when, at the last moment, it postponed the airing of a documentary on Falun Gong after being contacted by the Chinese Embassy. The CBC says the film required editing in certain contentious segments. For its intervention, the CBC was denounced as a mouthpiece of the Chinese government and accused of political interference. A version of the film aired on CBC Newsworld this week.
My own interest in the Falun Gong was piqued several years ago, when I passed one of the demonstrations its practitioners regularly stage on the front lawn of Parliament Hill. They stood holding banners that depicted gruesome scenes of torture and death at the hands of Chinese police.
Falun Gong is a spiritual movement that combines exercise and mediation. It was developed in 1992 by a former trumpet player named Li Hongzhi. He based his system of mind and body "cultivation" on qi gong, ancient exercises that enjoyed a popular resurgence in China in the 1980s.
By 1999, the Chinese government had labelled Falun Gong, or falun dafa, as it is also known, an "evil cult" and banned its practise. Practitioners say the Chinese Communist Party was threatened by its growing popularity. The government contends that Falun Gong encourages followers to resist medical treatments for illness.
The Internet is swamped by stories detailing the imprisonment and alleged murder of Falun Gong in China. The tone of the reporting often seemed highly partisan, especially coverage from the U.S.-based Epoch Times, a newspaper that bills itself as an independent voice of news from China, but appears chiefly interested in anti-Communist commentary and cataloging crimes against Falun Gong.
My first professional contact with the Falun Gong came in January when I wrote a story for this paper about a Chinese New Year's show held at the National Arts Centre. The performance was promoted as a celebration of Chinese culture, but several audience members I spoke to were dismayed by a segment depicting the murder of a Falun Gong practitioner by Chinese police. The Chinese Embassy called the event "propaganda" and decried the attendance of several Canadian politicians at the show.
The organizing committee of the event responded angrily, holding a press conference to denounce my story and repeatedly demanding to meet with my editors to discuss rectification of unspecified errors.
In August, I wrote another story about Falun Gong after Mr. Kilgour joined with other western politicians to call for a boycott of the 2008 Beijing Olympics over organ harvesting.
The story noted that while the conclusions of Kilgour-Matas report have been widely circulated, they are not universally accepted. The Chinese government had dismissed their work as a fabrication, but more neutral criticism came from the U.S. Congressional Research Service, which concluded the report for the most part "did not bring forth new or independently-obtained testimony and relies largely upon the making of logical inferences." This story also drew intense criticism and charges of bias against me from Falun Gong members. After it was published, I met with two Ottawa Falun Gong practitioners to discuss their concerns. They dumped a pile of printed material in my lap and insisted I watch a video that they claimed proved the self-immolation of Falun Gong in Tiananmen Square was a conspiracy orchestrated by the Chinese government to discredit Falun Gong.
Getting unbiased information about the issue was not going to be easy.
In March 2006, Sujiatun became ground zero for human rights concerns about China when the Epoch Times published an interview with a woman who said she was a former employee of the hospital.
The woman, identified only as "Annie," claimed her ex-husband was a surgeon who told her that he had removed the corneas of 2,000 Falun Gong practitioners in the Sujiatun hospital over a three-year period.
As many as 6,000 Falun Gong practitioners had been imprisoned in the hospital, the story said. Corneas were removed, some while the patients were alive, then the bodies cremated in the hospital boiler.
The story strongly evoked imagery of the Nazi death camps.
"It is said by the employees in the hospital these jewelry and watches were collected from the Falun Gong practitioners whose organs had been removed when they were about to be thrown in the boiler to be burned," Annie was quoted as saying. "It is also said by the employees in the hospital, some were still alive when being thrown into the boiler." When Annie went public, her story made headlines across the globe. It was a fantastic charge: the most populous nation on Earth was murdering its own citizens for their religious beliefs and then selling their body parts to foreigners. With the Olympics two years away, comparisons to Hitler's 1936 Berlin Games came easily.
Shortly after the Epoch Times story, diplomats from a nearby U.S. consulate and the U.S. Embassy in Beijing visited the Sujiatun site and found nothing amiss. A few journalists from Japan and Hong Kong came to look around and also left empty handed.
If the Chinese government allowed anyone to visit the site, it would have been sanitized first, Falun Gong supporters responded. The evidence of the crimes Annie alleged occurred between 2000 and 2003 would have been long gone, they said.
After my story about the call for an Olympic boycott, the Chinese Embassy in Ottawa contacted me to discuss the references to Sujiatun.
Would I like to see the hospital for myself, an embassy official asked. The Chinese Medical Association would take me there, at their expense, if I agreed. The Chinese Medical Association MA is a non-governmental organization that represents more than 400,000 Chinese health-care providers. It predates the Communist takeover of China by over 30 years, and had recently made headlines for opposing Beijing and calling for an end of organ transplants from executed criminals.
Journalist often get escorted tours of facilities they write about, but I was uneasy about working in China under the watch of a minder. And I knew travelling as the guest of an organization that would be indistinguishable from the Chinese government to outsiders would expose me to more charges of bias from the Falun Gong.
Still, Sujiatun had drawn the world's attention to alleged crimes that amounted to genocide. If I was going to write about the issue, I should see the hospital, even if -- as claimed -- the evidence of atrocities had long ago been cleansed. I agreed to go.
From media reports, I had been led to believe that the Thrombosis Hospital was located in some distant outpost, where the awful crimes within could be conducted out of sight. When I visited the hospital in October, I was surprised to find it next to a busy street with snarling traffic, a constant flow of bicycles and pedestrians, and little security. Anyone could walk in off the street into the wards.
The hospital is about a 30-minute drive from downtown Shenyang, an industrialized, but cosmopolitan, city of seven million. Its location in a bustling suburb made it seem an unlikely spot to conduct the methodical extermination of 2,000 human beings. If one were planning to set up a death camp and intending to do it discreetly, one could find better locations. An extermination centre on Merivale Road could operate more covertly.
On the day I visited, most of the wards inside were full with patients receiving treatment for strokes or blood clots, the hospital's specialty. My tour was led by several hospital administrators and an obstetrician from a Shenyang hospital who had been recruited as an interpreter.
The CT scanners and MRI scanner were in constant use, as was the machinery in the pharmacy that mass-produced herbal balms based on traditional Chinese medicine. The busiest spot in the building was cashier's desk in the main lobby, where dozens of patients and family members were lined up to pay for services rendered.
The boiler building that was supposedly used as a crematorium was in plain sight, with windows and a door that open to the quadrangle at the centre of the main hospital building.
The door to the building could be seen from any of the wards that look out on the quadrangle from three of the four sides of the hospital. It seemed unlikely that 2,000 cadavers could be brought to the building unseen, if not by the patients in the wards, then by residents of the seven-storey apartment building directly across the street, which had a direct sight line to the quadrangle.
The cremation of so many bodies would have created other logistical problems. In a conventional cremation oven, which burns at between 1600 and 2000 degrees Fahrenheit, it takes about two or three hours to incinerate a human body. But cremation does not reduce a body to ash. Skeletal fragments remain that are "very identifiable," according to Michael Kubasak, a Nevada cremation expert.
"You would be able to say, Here's the femur, here are the toes, here's the pelvis, here's the skull," Mr. Kubasak said. Even if the boilers burned hotter than a normal crematorium, the bones would likely remain, he said.
"The human body is very tough." Could the bones have been removed from the boilers at the hospital? Would the perpetrators of the alleged crimes have taken the trouble to grind the bones up? Or could they be disposed of in another way? On the day I visited, an orthopedic surgery on a patient's leg was under way in the operating theatre. During a break, head nurse Chen Feng came out to greet us. When she was told why I was there, her face darkened. Ms. Chen had worked at the hospital since 1989. The claim that prisoners were slaughtered on her watch deeply offended her.
"If that's true, we're like butchers," she said angrily, through my interpreter. "Ridiculous," she snorted, then pulled on her surgical mask and went back to work.
When I returned to Canada, I called Mr. Matas and Mr. Kilgour to talk about Sujiatun and their findings.
After the allegations about the hospital surfaced in the Epoch Times, a group called the Coalition to Investigate the Persecution of the Falun Gong asked them to conduct an independent investigation of the issue.
They were unable to see Sujiatun, or anywhere else in China, they said, because the Chinese government refused their requests to visit while working on their report in May and June 2006.
Their first report, issued in July 2006, concluded there had been "large scale organ seizures from unwilling Falun Gong practitioners." They found Annie credible, but said her testimony was relied on only where it was "corroborative and consistent with other evidence." Their findings stood without Annie's claims about Sujiatun, Mr. Matas said.
Annie's original allegation was the reason they were asked to investigate, he told me. Her story was included in their work only as the "historical narrative," he said.
"We didn't rely on her," Mr. Matas said. "We looked at all the evidence together and came to that conclusion." I pressed him on whether he believed the story about Sujiatun.
"We don't have the records, we can't get into that level of detail," he said.
Mr. Kilgour was angered by the previous story I had written. In the first 20 minutes of our phone conversation, he called me "a lousy journalist," told me I don't "have any brains" and compared me to Holocaust denier David Irving.
"Essentially, in our view, that's what you're doing," he said. "You're a denier that this is happening to the Falun Gong community." This would turn out to be a familiar response to questions about the Falun Gong. Mr. Kilgour's co-author, Mr. Matas, wrote a lengthy submission to the Citizen about organ harvesting in which he referenced Holocaust denial. Lucy Zhou, one of the Falun Gong practitioners I met with, wrote to my editors in advance of this story to ask if the Citizen would have published in 1943 a similar story denying slaughter by a totalitarian regime.
It was a point that I had repeatedly considered. As a reporter, there is no risk in accepting the Kilgour-Matas conclusions at face value. Most of my colleagues in the Canadian media had, as evidenced by recent coverage of the CBC imbroglio. China couldn't sue for libel, after all.
The findings of the Kilgour-Matas report might never be proven by others, but there is little chance they will be disproved. By questioning the Falun Gong or their supporters, however, one risks unparalleled humiliation if the claims of organ harvesting are later corroborated. As Mr. Kilgour pointed out, I was among the few journalists, other than those working for state media in Beijing, who had written so critically of his report. History could make me into a modern day Tokyo Rose by asking for proof of a 21st century Holocaust.
And, Mr. Kilgour added, because I had gone to China as a guest of the Chinese Medical Association, I had been "bought and paid for." The Kilgour-Matas report presents what Mr. Kilgour calls 33 branches of evidence, including a statistical analysis of executions and transplants conducted in China.
It offers transcripts of telephone calls in which hospital staff across China are said to be confessing to the use of organs from Falun Gong prisoners. (The Congressional research service raised doubts about the authenticity of these calls, wondering why hospital officials would be so candid about such a sensitive issue with strangers on the phone. Mr. Kilgour explains that only a small percentage of the hospitals contacted admitted they used Falun Gong organs.) The Kilgour-Matas report also points to the extremely short time foreigners who were willing to pay for organ transplants had to wait in China, compared to other countries.
Not everyone would consider all these branches as compelling evidence. Among the 33 elements listed under "proof and disproof," the report counts contextual information, such as the absence of an organized organ-donation system in China and corruption across the country.
The report also counts as evidence the response from the government of China to the first edition of the report. The updated version claims China is "unable to contradict" the findings.
"It's the combination of all 33, including the Sujiatun evidence and the statement by Annie that persuaded me," Mr. Kilgour told me.
The most personally compelling, Mr. Kilgour said, was the testimony of an unnamed Asian man who went to a hospital in Shanghai, where his compatibility was tested for a match against a succession of eight kidneys during two separate visits.
"As he agreed, eight human beings died before he got a kidney," Mr. Kilgour said. "I was deeply effected by that." Among the unconvinced, however, is Harry Wu, a prominent Chinese dissident who spent 19 years in a Chinese forced labour camp.
Few have been more critical of the Communist Party of China and its human rights record that Mr. Wu. In the 1980s, he exposed the system of forced labour in China and did for the "laogai" what Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn did for the gulags of Stalin's Soviet Union.
Mr. Wu's Washington, D.C.-based organization, the Laogai Research Foundation, was also instrumental in proving that organs of executed criminals were used for transplants.
Mr. Wu's expertise makes him a highly credible source and, because of his personal experience, the Falun Gong could not accuse him of bias in favour of China's government.
Mr. Wu stands among the few to publicly deny claims that Falun Gong practitioners were killed for their organs. There is, he says, simply no compelling evidence to support them.
When Mr. Wu and his researchers were tracking death-penalty cases and organ transplants, they worked from court files, medical records and eyewitness testimony.
"In all these cases there is a number of the judges, prosecutors, policemen, drivers, nurses and doctors," he told the Citizen. The Chinese government had tried to keep the issue under wraps, yet still evidence could be obtained.
There is no such corroboration of the systemic execution of Falun Gong prisoners, he says.
"It is possible Falun Gong practitioners were killed by the security police. It is also possible that they were killed and removed the organs. But where are the documents?" he asked.
Mr. Kilgour says he met with Mr. Wu in Washington and tried to explain what was happening to the Falun Gong.
"He's an expert on the executed prisoners," Mr. Kilgour said, "but he knows nothing about the Falun Gong prisoners who don't get trials, don't get convictions. They just get executed after they go to work camps.
"He doesn't want to believe that. He wants to believe everybody that has had their organs taken in China is an executed criminal." But Mr. Wu remains unconvinced. To accept the Falun Gong claims, one must believe in a massive conspiracy that requires the co-operation of tens of thousands of participants to remain silent, he says.
"They can cover up one or two or three. Can they cover all of them?" he said.
With the Beijing Olympics less than a year away, the outrage about Falun Gong organs will likely be heard with increasing frequency, as will the denials from China.
Depending on who you believe, Sujiatun is either one of many sanitized crime scenes across China where Falun Gong were secretly slaughtered, or merely a shabby mid-sized hospital that treats bloodclots.
Depending on who you believe, the Kilgour-Matas report is either compelling evidence that proves the claims about Falun Gong, with or without support of Sujiatun, or a collection of conjecture and inductive reasoning that fails to support its own conclusions.
To Mr. Wu, the latter depends on the former.
"You can't say if Sujiatun is not true, I can offer other evidence.
"We have to talk about Sujiatun. It's not like one or two practitioners were killed. It's thousands," he said. "You have to prove this first."