China’s other big business: Harvesting organs from prisoners when they’re still alive

WARNING: Disturbing content

It’s a story straight out of a horror movie, but it’s been common practice in China for more than a decade.

State-run hospitals have secretly harvested body parts from tens of thousands of prisoners, removing their vital organs while they are still alive.

Filmmaker Leon Lee has been following the researchers trying to bring down this inhumane and illegal industry. He says what they found was a form of evil we have not yet seen on this planet.

Witnesses claim patients were tortured and raped before surgery.

Witnesses claim patients were tortured and raped before surgery. Source: SBS

“An armed police officer on duty at his college operating theatre witnessed the organ harvesting of a 30-year-old female without anaesthetic,” he told “In the days before, they tortured her, raped her, did all sorts of things to her. The scale of it is beyond imagination.

“A lot of the operations happen in miltary hospitals where it’s easy to control, in labour camps, prisons or vans. They take the heart, liver, cornea, lungs, skin, kidneys … Mostly they take all the organs.”

Lee believes there have been more than 65,000 victims, at a conservative estimate. His shocking documentary, which airs tonight on Dateline at 9.30pm, traces the investigation into the abhorrent industry by human rights lawyer David Matas and former Canadian member of parliament David Kilgour.

A woman named Annie (not her real name), who fled China with her doctor husband, tells Lee in the film that her spouse removed the corneas of 2000 patients while they were still alive. “Some of them were still alive when they were secretly burnt in the incinerator that was in the boiler room,” she adds.

These are crimes of unspeakable horror.

These are crimes of unspeakable horror. Source: SBS

Her husband would wake up with nightmares, and sit staring at the television without watching. Annie says the government tried to kill him after he fled.

“It is extremely horrible for the doctors,” said Lee. “They are scared to speak out. If they continue to cooperate, they’ll be compensated, if not, there will be terrible consequences.”

China has the second-highest number of organ transplants in the world, after the US. The waiting time can be as little as two or three weeks, while in America it often takes around a month to find a match. It has become a destination for patients who want to avoid waiting, and are apparently mostly unware of the truth — or do not want to know.

Before 2010, there were no organ donation systems in China, in part for cultural reasons. The government claimed that body parts came from death row prisoners, but the researchers say this cannot account for the huge number of transplants.

Most of the victims are thought to be members of the banned Falun Gong movement.

Most of the victims are thought to be members of the banned Falun Gong movement. Source: SBS

In 2006, reports emerged that the country’s leaders were executing members of the Falun Gong movement — a quasi-religious group with millions of followers, which is banned in China.

“The vast majority are Falun Gong practitioners,” said Lee. “There are also political dissidents and activists. They are taken without informing the family members.

“In a few cases, the family have accidentally got to see pictures of the body, and could see the surgery line. When they questioned the police, they said it had been suicide and they had done an autopsy.”

Matas and Kilgour, both Nobel Peace Prize nominees, have been speaking across the world about what’s happening, despite having had death threats. They want to see the names of those involved go on a list to face the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

David Matas, pictured, and fellow Nobel Peace Prize nominee David Kilgour are determined

David Matas, pictured, and fellow Nobel Peace Prize nominee David Kilgour are determined to see the instigators prosecuted for their crimes. Source: SBS

China has denied the allegations, and even made a documentary of its own in retaliation to Lee’s Human Harvest. It claims all organ donors are volunteers, and that the practice will stop in August regardless. Not everyone is convinced.

China’s president, Xi Jinping, has been running an anti-corruption campaign, arresting those loyal to ex-leader Jiang Zemin, who were responsible for the persecution of Falun Gong.

Recent remarks from Xi’s top officials suggest the state is shifting its stance, pointing the finger at former security chief Zhou Yongkang for the organ harvesting.

It looks as though the billion-dollar industry is set to die, but it is far too late for the many victims of this abominable crime.

See the full story tonight at 9.30pm on SBS ONE, when filmmaker Leon Lee will be online on Twitter to answer questions about his investigation.

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Eric Write head editor and chief at The Pluto Daily