Interview with Ethan Gutmann on his book The Slaughter


DAFOH: Have you made any new discoveries in your research on forced organ harvesting in China?

Ethan Gutmann: Well, let me lead off with something I can’t fully talk about until my book is released.

I interviewed well over a hundred individuals for The Slaughter. Among them was a surgeon with a peerless reputation for integrity and candor. He has personal and direct knowledge of the organ harvesting of Falun Gong in the Chinese mainland. It’s a shocking story. The embargo on his experiences and his identity will end on the day the book is released—August 12th, 2014.

I mention this because we face a world plagued by attention deficit disorder. Every three years, the BBC seems to rediscover that death-row prisoners in China are being harvested for their organs—even though the Chinese medical establishment confessed to it seven years ago and China experts knew about it for at least twice that long. So when it comes to the harvesting of prisoners of conscience—an exponentially greater crime which the Chinese medical establishment strenuously denies—we need a single data point, a smoking gun. I believe this surgeon will provide that. I also believe The Slaughter will provide much more: A beginning to the story, irrefutable evidence of the harvesting of Uyghurs and Tibetans, and a deeply unsettling ending—or rather a continuity: I just interviewed a witness whose testimony demonstrates that Falun Gong were being examined for harvesting less than a year ago.

I have no illusions. Even these findings will not satisfy some skeptics. For them, it is not the how—obviously the decision to start harvesting prisoners of conscience along with death-row prisoners was little more than a legal blurring around the edge, a technical triviality—but the why. Why would the Chinese leadership—which many in the West see as increasingly sophisticated, forward-looking, even admirable—take such a wild risk? Why would they commit atrocities on such a massive scale? There is nothing stupid about such questions; in fact they are the central dilemma that my book investigates. Six of my ten chapters are devoted to how and why the repression of Falun Gong spun out of control.


DAFOH: How is your new book, The Slaughter, different from previous books on this issue?

Ethan Gutmann: I work very hard to give the reader enough room to reach their own conclusions.

Look, I am standing on the shoulders of giants here—Kilgour and Matas, the World Organization to Investigate the Persecution of Falun Gong (WOIPFG), Matthew Robertson’s seminal reporting, and others—you know who you are. We all employ different methods.  Kilgour and Matas list fully 52 key points of evidence in Bloody Harvest, many of them based on Chinese government documents. That’s good; diverse sources make our collective conclusions more robust.

Yet anyone who has read my published work knows that I swear by fieldwork and refugee interviews. It is the heart of what I do.


DAFOHAnd what makes your book a must-read?

Ethan Gutmann: I’m objective, but I won’t pretend that I am unmoved by my subjects. Their struggle may be universal, almost timeless, yet each individual spoke to me from a place of searing pain—and occasionally, sublime joy. Their stories answer the real, hidden question of the skeptic—namely, why should I care? And that is what makes The Slaughter a must-read.


DAFOHAfter your initial skepticism, what made you change your mind and convinced you that prisoners of conscience were being killed for their organs in China?

Ethan Gutmann: Refugee testimony.


DAFOHYes, in the book State Organs you mention that a “chill” that swept over you when your “cloak of skepticism” fell away while interviewing a Falun Gong survivor from China. Can you describe this experience?

Ethan Gutmann: Perhaps you are looking for a smoking gun here too? Yet that was a singular personal experience, one I can’t fully reproduce. This was a middle-aged woman, a Chinese aunty, who had been given a highly specialized physical examination in the labor camp. The only possible medical rationale was to assess whether she could be exploited for her kidneys, her liver, her corneas, and perhaps her heart—the retail organs. What made her testimony so credible was that I wasn’t looking for evidence of organ harvesting and she did not recognize the examination as having any importance whatsoever. Actually, if I hadn’t interviewed her for hours she wouldn’t even have mentioned it. That sort of unscripted slip is investigative gold to someone like me, particularly as I went into the organ harvesting story suspecting that it might all be an urban legend.

So yes, it was chilling. But I confess that the thrill of the hunt quickly followed.


DAFOHIs there a story that particularly moved you?

Ethan Gutmann: There is no one single witness, no poster victim. The true chill is when you get a whiff of the same familiar cordite in divergent locations—Asia, Australia, Europe, North America—and from completely unrelated individuals—a young Falun Gong man, a Uyghur nurse, a Tibetan monk. Then the cloak of skepticism must surely fall away, and one must acknowledge that the same gun has been fired many, many times.


DAFOHDo you follow a guideline or certain protocol when you interview witnesses or former prisoners of conscience from China? How do you validate witness reports?

Ethan Gutmann: Excellent question.

Organ harvesting resembles investigation during a time of war.  Validation is a challenging process. Sometimes you can find a common thread between several witnesses (this was the case with the Changchun hijackers), but in the majority of the cases, their experience in labor camp is atomized. So you look for patterns. Even then, refugees are like POWs. They aren’t sure who they can trust.

I interview people for hours, even days at times. Initially I expect little. I let them vent. I play dumb. With government and police officials, I let them imagine that I am a stupid Westerner. Sometimes I even employ threats. So yes, there are tricks, but the vast majority of subjects want to tell the truth and it’s just a question of establishing a space where they feel free enough—safe enough—to get on with it. If they couldn’t achieve that state of mind, if the resistance was too high, the interview ended up on the cutting room floor.

I follow many protocols but only one really works: always go for the telling detail. You were beaten; what color was the floor? The doctor examined your corneas with a light; can you do it to me?

No individual possesses the entire Rosetta Stone. If a witness claimed they could supply the entire organ harvesting story from arrest to the grim disposal of what remained of the corpse—well, as the Zen saying goes: If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him. Spies know everything; humans miss stuff. Credibility is a human attribute; it can’t be created in a lab so easily because it comes with limitations and prejudices and failings that are hard to reproduce. And of all the humans that I have met, refugees from Chinese labor camps,in particular, carry a great deal of pain and expectation and need.  In that sense, The Slaughter is a failure. It can never live up to their expectations and their sacrifice.


DAFOHFor years, China pledged reform in transplant medicine to pacify international concerns. When the pledges grew stale and lost their ability to buy time, new promises were presented to freshly appease the world. Why would governments and medical organizations accept promises that organ harvesting from prisoners will end without implementing measures of scrutiny?

Ethan Gutmann: I wrote a book about this so I’ll just point out that fearing China is a rational response. Wishful thinking, fantasizing that the process of engagement will reverse a pattern of cover-ups and lies—a cover-up that in this case determines whether the Chinese Communist Party lives or dies—that is rank fantasy. That’s the best case. At worst, as I suspect in the case of the US state department, it’s rank cynicism.  The Transplant Society (TTS) does not insist on verification because ultimately they think a fig-leaf is the best they can do.

Anyway the fig-leaf is gone now and engagement has been revealed as a sham. Huang Jiefu recently reneged on all his promises of ending organ harvesting of prisoners. Apparently he just wants accurate forms before they are cut to pieces. We are back where we were in 2006. The irony of all this “progress” that the TTS appeared to be making was only driven by fear of groups like DAFOH, the “Two David’s” progress in the political sphere, and the amazing material that WOIPFG keeps turning up. David Brooks quoting my work in the NYTs didn’t hurt either. But at the end of the day, the TTS didn’t fail; we did. Apparently we didn’t scare them enough.


DAFOHWhen China announced the proposed “phase out” of taking organs from convicted prisoners why was there no mention of prisoners of conscience in the western free press?

Ethan Gutmann: China-based journalists instinctively understand the Beijing waterfront. You can study Falun Gong from a distance, as long as your writing reflects that distance and a high degree of disengagement. Perhaps, like Phillip Pan, you can even do a quick hit that punctures a cheap propaganda campaign like the Tiananmen Self-Immolation. But if you openly testify on the full scale of the atrocity—an atrocity that all serious China journalists instinctively understand is occurring—you’re dead on this  and every waterfront from Dalian to Behai.  You don’t get your accreditation.  You don’t interview an official. You don’t write for anyone.  You’re dead.


DAFOHYour courage and dedication in your work as an independent journalist on forced organ harvesting is essential. Many independent and syndicated journalists alike seem to forget their mission of uncensored reporting when it comes to China. Why do you think mainstream media has neglected to investigate and report on this “uncomfortable” topic in China? And why is it important that this be addressed by the mainstream media?”

Ethan Gutmann: If by mainstream you mean they are better providers for their families than I am…look, I don’t want to whine about this. I sense that many mainstream journalists would like to report on the organ harvesting of prisoners of conscience but they don’t have the confidence to go to their editors with a story that goes beyond a routine binary approach—Bloody Harvest says this, the Chinese government denies it.

Back in 2006, the harvesting story was still manageable for a daily reporter. But look how much evidence we have accumulated since that time. Do they want to dive in? It will require days of research, fact-checking, sifting through shakily-translated reports and tape recordings filled with barely intelligible conversations. And that’s just to check one of my essays! Is it any wonder that we are getting far more traction with mainstream governments these days? Staffers actually have the responsibility—and the time, that’s very important—to read our materials closely. And the collective evidence is remarkably persuasive if you actually sift through it.

So where do I hold mainstream journalists accountable?  Well, they aren’t terribly creative about primary research.

Look what independent researcher Arne Schwarz came up with simply using a computer and a suspicion about Roche’s medical testing in China. Or take the gaping hole in our knowledge of Western organ tourism—we know little about its shape and composition yet it comes up in practically every government hearing. You want to fill that hole? You want a searing human-interest story? Instead of re-inventing the harvesting wheel an enterprising reporter merely needs to track anti-rejection drugs and elicit a few discreet medical leads. They don’t even need to go to China. And yes, those findings could be important.  But what’s most important is that journalism stops kibitzing with the evidence and starts building on it.


DAFOH: Governments worldwide are concerned about their economic ties with China and there is a perceived competition between finances and human rights. Even when governments openly address human rights concerns, financial bonds with China tether their language and actions.

Ethan Gutmann: China’s economic clout is not going away. We can’t rely on politicians alone. Action requires a change of consciousness at the elite level.


DAFOHThe European Parliament’s new resolution on forced organ harvesting is a clear and powerful statement in support of basic rights. Much is happening in the US: the H.R. 281, petitions, the Illinois Resolution and a heightened awareness of the problem. As a leader of the free world, how should the United States position itself?

Ethan Gutmann: Resolutions are not enough. Not with Huang Jiefu’s open declaration of piracy. Which brings us to the US. And the problem for the US is exactly how you just framed it: leader of the free world. If America openly declares that a crime against humanity is taking place…Look, the US State Department knows that this is happening. Wang Lijun, Bo Xilai’s protégé—his direct involvement in organ harvesting is an open secret at this point. The State Department will always have interests in Chinese cooperation, in Al Qaeda, North Korea, Iran.  So again, I always testify in Congress when I am called to do so, and I am grateful for DAFOH’s support in that regard, but government is ultimately not the answer.  America is a free society; there is nothing stopping the American medical community from shutting down selective areas of cooperation with the Chinese medical establishment. Given Huang Jiefu’s recent betrayal, that’s the only moral action available. And DAFOH can play a pivotal role.


DAFOHIn March 2014, Canada, for the first time, raised the issue of forced organ harvesting from Falun Gong practitioners in China at the UNHRC. As a China expert do you think that the human rights efforts of countries like Canada have any influence on the CCP?

Ethan Gutmann: Yes. Particularly by contrast. Traditionally Canadian businessmen have been absolutely gaga over the Chinese market. When I was based in Beijing their diplomats were among the most obsequious. It was embarrassing at times. And Nortel’s nauseating transfer of surveillance equipment to the Chinese secret police was only matched by Cisco’s deep pockets and their cutthroat corporate philosophy. Even the Bombardier high-speed rail deal was ultimately used to move Chinese troops into Tibetan villages. So from a historical perspective, Canada has a lot to make up for. But Ottawa is on the right road. They have the potential to lead both Washington and Westminster on this issue.


DAFOHWhat steps can politicians, the medical community, and the general public take to help stop forced organ harvesting in China?

Ethan Gutmann: Have no illusions. The Chinese organ harvesting trade is fueled by Western money. Anyone who doubts that can Google “Omar Healthcare Service” on the web. So follow the money and the first step is easy enough: Follow your values.

What can you accept? The Jewish state, forged in the Holocaust, could not accept Jewish citizens traveling to China to receive organs from slaughtered religious dissidents. So they banned organ tourism. And when Gunther von Hagen’s “Bodies” show came to town, they banned that too. Just a few days ago a prominent Israeli Rabbi, Shlomo Aviner, called for protests on behalf of Falun Gong. His message was simple: “Do not forget the Chinese. They are human beings created in the image of God.”

Israel may be considered a pariah state by Europeans but, given Israel’s precarious position with Iran and their profitable software drain to China they have shown a lot more backbone than any other country I know of. Westminster dances, Paris rolls its eyes, Berlin cannot judge.

Here’s the whine: I’m ashamed of my culture. And yet on the issue of banning organ tourism to China we have seen small campfires emerging on the periphery: Scotland, and New South Wales, perhaps even Canada. Watch Taipei closely.

We are all imperfect vehicles for this singular challenge of our time. I don’t actually give any policy prescriptions in my book; I recognized a long time ago that I was writing a book not because I could save anyone in China, but merely to give something to the survivors. As I mentioned earlier, my book does not end in resolution but in terrible continuity. It’s up to you to write the end.


DAFOHThank you.