China is stepping up efforts to deflect continued accusations that the country practices illegal organ harvesting from executed prisoners, including Falun Gong practitioners. Chinese Deputy Health Minister Huang Jiefu has again admitted there is a problem, though he claims it is the work of rogue surgeons, and said Beijing is taking steps to address it. China's more public and open approach is an attempt to deflate the issue before activists use the accusations in campaigns targeting the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Canadian human rights lawyer David Matas and former Canadian Secretary of State for the Asia-Pacific Region David Kilgour published a report in July on allegations of organ harvesting in China, focusing on reported activities against Falun Gong practitioners. The report was requested by the Coalition to Investigate the Persecution of Falun Gong in China, a nongovernmental organization with offices in Washington, D.C., and Ottawa. More widely circulated since its publication, the report is being cited by pro-Falun Gong activists, human rights activists and those who oppose the Communist Chinese as further indication of China's failings. There are some indications that activists also could use it as a tool to pressure the Chinese government by targeting major sponsors of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. This is a concern Beijing takes seriously. The Beijing Olympics are intended to showcase China as a modern and "big" nation, one in which the taints of the Maoist era and the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident are distant memories. Beijing wants the Olympics to serve as a focus for investment and as a way to engender social pride and unity. This latter point is critical as the central government struggles with economic and social disparity, corruption and rising domestic frustrations. In the anti-corruption fight, China's leaders have learned that, rather than ignoring or hiding the problem, exposing it reduces pressure and softens the social response. Beijing is now applying that lesson to the issue of organ harvesting. Chinese Deputy Health Minister Huang Jiefu, a researcher in liver transplant techniques, has been the point man for this effort, and for the past year has been taking the issue public. Most recently, on Nov. 15, Huang spoke at a surgeons' conference in Guangzhou, admitting there was a problem with the harvesting of prisoners' organs, but saying it was limited to rogue surgeons, and not sanctioned by the state. Huang reinforced Beijing's call to end the "under-the-table [organ] business," and noted that most illegal-organ harvesting is done to supply organs to foreign patients — a big business in China. The Chinese Health Ministry issued new rules on organ donations and transplants in March, which took effect in July, though initial reports suggest there has been only minimal improvement in controlling and monitoring the transplant activities. Beijing's more open handling of the accusations, rather than simply ignoring or denying them, is an attempt to take the wind out of the sails of activists ahead of the 2008 Olympics. Though the report itself may have only minimal impact on China's activities, should the activists follow a tried-and-true pattern of targeting businesses and linking their relations with Beijing to the organ harvesting, a public relations campaign could cause some to rethink their sponsorship of the Beijing Olympics, undermining Beijing's image and cash flow. For China, admitting the problem may or may not be the first step toward addressing it, but it certainly is a way to reduce the potential for organ harvesting accusations to be a tool against corporate sponsorship in Beijing two years down the road.