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Inside China's 'crematorium'
 
Adjust font size:   Close Canada.com Glen McGregor 2007-12-04
 

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. 

SHENYANG, 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.

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