Interview with Minnesota State Senator Jim Abeler

In June 2017, Minnesota State Senator Jim Abeler penned an open letter to president Xi Jinping regarding the persecution of Falun Gong in China. The letter urges Xi to end the persecution and to openly condemn the practice of forced organ harvesting. The letter—signed by 103 Minnesota State House Members and State Senators—was also copied to President Donald Trump.
On October 18, 2017, DAFOH conducted an interview with Rep. Jim Abeler to elaborate further on the initiative to write to president Xi Jinping.


DAFOH: What motivated you to write a letter directly to President Xi Jinping?

Senator Abeler: Well, A. came and told us about this horrible goings-on in China, and I had not heard about it. When I heard that they were harvesting organs from people who were still alive, I couldn’t imagine such a barbaric thing. Period. And so she said that we could do something about it, and so we set about working on this letter.

DAFOH: What was the response from your colleagues when they heard that you were writing this letter?

Senator Abeler: They were very supportive. What did we get, a hundred? How many signatures did we get? We have 103 signatures, and more would have signed it, but we just ran out of time. So people are universally appalled that this would go on – republican, democrat, independent, green party, communist party – it’s all horrible. There’s nobody in America who thinks this is anything short of murder. And we’re all against murder. We’re all against torture. And so it was a pleasure to lead up this project and to help us try to change this horrifying action.

DAFOH: What would you tell other parliamentarians – from around the world – to follow your example of direct engagement with the Chinese President?

Senator Abeler: I would tell them to do the right thing and to stand up against this sort of thing. There’s a lot of political pressure to be nice to China because they’re a big trading partner. But it seems to me that you have to do the right thing. One of my mentors taught me: it’s never right to do the wrong thing; it’s never wrong to do the right thing; it’s never too late to do the right thing. And so I encourage everybody who’s considering this to join the furor about this torture and become part of the solution. I think if enough legislatures and countries and leaders would work on this, that China would be embarrassed and stop.

DAFOH: As an elected representative in Minnesota, what concerns do you have about the accumulated evidence of forced organ harvesting in china and the underlying persecution that facilitates it?

Senator Abeler: Well, it just makes me sick. There’s only so much we can do; we’re a state legislature. Congress should do something. The U.S. Congress should do something about that. I think Jimmy Carter was working on human rights issues, and I think that human rights issues should go back into part of our political dealings with foreign countries. And I hope that this can become part of that discussion. Hopefully, the Trump administration would agree that this is horrifying and keep bringing it up and get some news about it. In a constructive way, this could be something the bipartisan groups could actually agree on and start to rebuild the trust in Washington, but also rescue these innocent people who didn’t do anything wrong except have a faith.

DAFOH: What makes these crimes against humanity an important issue for the U.S. and its citizens?

Senator Abeler: We kind of covered that. It’s just so horrifying.

DAFOH: How about for Minnesotans?

Senator Abeler: We did our thing. You know, Minnesota trades with China. And maybe Minnesota could – this will maybe help to make a statement to China. I don’t know if we did any real work about affecting the trade people. We didn’t talk to DEED about it, which is the Department of Economic Development that handles some of the Minnesota trade stuff, international trade. But is seems like, if the governor was interested in this, he could make a thing out of it too. I don’t know if you’ve pursued that. It might be worth it.

DAFOH: I know that the U of M has the largest Chinese student population in North America, so I was thinking – I don’t know, if we train the doctors here, that might have some negative impact there with the forced organ harvesting.

Senator Abeler: I think that the Chinese students can have a lot of influence. Students can do a lot. So maybe the next step is that we need more voices. The legislature has spoken. We agree that this is – there’s not a bad enough word for it. Abhorrent doesn’t seem like it carries enough weight, but it’s abhorrent. And, so, if the Chinese students would make a point to get ahold of the governor and Shawntera Hardy, who is the commissioner at DEED, and try to make this an issue. One state can make a difference if they would. So probably the next step is to try to get ahold of the governor and see if they’re willing to proceed with this. I think the governor would be comforted by 103 bipartisan signatures on a letter.

DAFOH: The U.S. is traditionally a leader in defending human rights. Righteous voices like your represent these traditions. What other steps from the federal government would you like to see to bring the state-sponsored organ procurement from prisoners of conscience to an end?

Senator Abeler: Well, like I said, you have to bring it up. And if it never gets brought up, then the trade negotiators don’t even have to worry about it. This has to be an issue. And we have enough clout. We’re a big enough trading partner. I don’t think China is going to stop trading with us over this, maybe they’ll start to do the right thing. And the court of world opinion does matter. And so that’s what I would proceed with, and bring it up in trade negotiations, and say, “By the way, you can’t do this. And maybe we’ll give you some kind of a good thing. We’ll give you a bonus of some sort if you quit doing this.” The better thing would be, “Stop it, or we’re not coming back.” That’s what I would like to see. And threaten them with a loss of a huge export market. Nixon opened it up in 1970-something. And now it’s big business, and so business has taken over. And business needs to have a conscience as well and be willing to do the right thing. And so the Chinese students or other people could talk to big China-trading companies and say, “Do you know what they’re doing? Does that bother you? It should.” And you get the stockholders and the shareholders of various companies to complain to the companies they own stock in and make this an issue at the annual meetings. “Are we still trading with them? Do you know what they’re doing?” And they probably don’t know what they’re doing. So you first inform people, and then, hopefully, they’ll do the right thing.

DAFOH: China announced it will be the world leader in transplantation, surpassing the U.S. in transplant numbers by 2020. It also announced a “Special Economic Zone” for medical tourism on Hainan Island. Do we need more federal attention to prevent unethical transplant tourism

Senator Abeler: Sure. Especially if the source of those transplants are conscientious, innocent prisoners, prisoners of conscience. That tourism is important to the Chinese, and maybe they have to go about finding their donors the old fashioned way: wait for someone to die naturally, and then harvest the organs. It’s nice to have a ready supply, but that sounds like some futuristic movie where we’ve resorted to the rich get all the stuff, including people’s lives, and the poor become the donors. No one wants that. Well, maybe some people do; they want the business. And the ramifications are amazing, and they’re all bad. And so we must deprive China of the revenue from this, either by State Department restrictions on going there for that purpose, and a clear path of origination of the donated part, that it didn’t come from a prison camp.

DAFOH: A few weeks of independent, international inspections could likely provide a clear answer whether in China prisoners of conscience, such as Falun Gong practitioners, are killed for their organs or not. Why do you think does the Chinese government rather endure a decade of criticism and evidence revealing reports, instead of simply allowing such inspections?

Senator Abeler: Because it’s of no consequence to them. “So, gee, I’m being embarrassed, but I’m making a billion dollars. I’ll be pretty embarrassed to make a billion dollars.” There has to be some teeth. They have to lost the money. So embarrassment alone isn’t enough because that didn’t work. So now you have to take the money, which is where the State Department would have a rule: if you can’t prove that most of the donors are involuntary and alive, then we’re not going to let you go there for an organ transplant. And hopefully other countries would join the same thing. Medical tourism sounds so nice, unless you realize the liver came from a 34-year-old guy who still had expectations to be alive.

DAFOH: Is there anything else you’d like to say that I didn’t ask?

Senator Abeler: I think it’s time for the federal government to really become a part of this. It’s time for the business climate, the business community to do the right thing and face up to this.