The allegations gained fresh momentum as a result of a report published on July 6 by two Canadian human rights lawyers, who examined in detail claims that the Chinese authorities are killing prisoners in order to sell their organs at home and overseas.
A Falun Gong association in North America asked the two lawyers, David Matas and David Kilgour, to help them investigate allegations that prisoners not sentenced to death by any court were being killed.
There were some 60,000 transplant operations in China between 2000 and 2005, but Matas and Kilgour estimate that just 18,000 organ donations in that period came from official sources.
The two are experienced human rights lawyers. Kilgour is a former Canadian secretary of state, and Matas is a well-known specialist in refugee, immigration, and rights issues.
They say in their report that they have not found any hard evidence to prove these grave charges against China. Nevertheless, Kilgour and Matas claim to have established a sequence of circumstantial evidence that suggests such a trade is going on. It involves victims, in particular, from the Falun Gong.
Kilgour and Matas were not allowed to visit China in person. As they point out, after such organ removals are purportedly carried out, an empty operating room holds no clues. Nor do the bodies remain: Authorities are said to cremate the remains after the liver, kidney, heart or other organs are removed.
The Chinese government rejects the whole story as "extremely irresponsible." The political counselor at the Chinese Embassy in Australia, Ou Boqian, told RFE/RL that the accusation is totally false.
"Let me say, putting it briefly, that this is really a fabricated story; it does not exist," Ou said.
She noted that the international press was invited to view some medical facilities that Falun Gong named as killing centers, and they found nothing amiss.
Many Went In...
When it was banned by Chinese authorities in 1999, the Falun Gong had tens of millions of members -- many thousands of whom were arrested or sent to labor or reeducation camps. U.S. officials have estimated that police ran hundreds of reeducation camps with a holding capacity of 300,000 people.
Lawyers Matas and Kilgour say many of the rounded-up Falun Gong declined to give their identification details to authorities, fearing that their families would suffer. This protected the families, they say, but at the same time left the prisoners untraceable by their families -- and made it easier for the prisoners to quietly disappear. Could these be at least some of the donors for China's massive organ-transplant business?
According to figures supplied by the vice chairman of the China Medical Organ Transplant Association, Professor Bingyi Shi, there were some 60,000 transplant operations carried out in China between 2000 and 2005.
But Matas and Kilgour estimate that only about 18,000 organ donations in that period came from official sources -- that is, individuals donating their organs posthumously or from formally executed death-row prisoners. They say this leaves a shortfall of some 40,000 organ donations, and wonder aloud where those organs came from.
Certainly a motive for criminal activity is provided by the profits to be made from organ transplanting. The China International Transplantation Network Assistance Center in Shenyang earlier this year carried a list of prices for body parts. The list put the price of a kidney at $62,000, of a liver at $130,000, the same for a heart, and of a lung at $150,000.
These huge prices are set against a backdrop of wide-ranging corruption among officials, despite the efforts of the Communist Party to stamp it out. With such profits to be made, it's easy to see how the system could be abused.
Leading human rights groups are taken aback by the scale of the horrendous allegations against China, and are trying to establish what is really going on.
"We have been trying to find out more, obviously, because the allegations are very, very serious," said Amnesty International's Anna Kltalahti. "I mean, if something like that would happen, it would be very serious indeed. But we have not been able to get very far in our investigations."
But Falun Gong claims to have more evidence. Falun Gong members in North America say they telephoned various hospitals, prisons, and other institutions in China posing as organ buyers, recording the resulting conversations.
In one such conversation -- to the Mishan City Detention Center in Hailongjiang province on June 8 -- a staff member tells the caller that they have "Falun Gong [organ] suppliers."
Question: "Do you have Falun Gong [organ] suppliers?
Answer: "We used to have, yes."
Question: "What about now?"
Question: "Can we come to select, or do you supply directly to us?"
Answer: "We provide them to you."
Question: "What about the price?"
Answer: "We discuss after you come."
Meanwhile, a Chinese woman interviewed by Matas and Kilgour claimed her husband was a surgeon who told her he had personally removed the eye corneas from 2,000 anesthetized Falun Gong prisoners in northeast China, during a two-year period to October 2003. She said her husband later refused to continue the grisly work.
Open To Abuse
The Chinese government in 2005 confirmed for the first time that it used organs from tried and executed prisoners. To human rights groups, this is already an exploitive approach to the body-parts issue, because it implies criminals could be sentenced to death more readily in order to have their organs.
"What is already established and admitted by the Chinese authorities is that organs are taken from condemned death-penalty prisoners," says Human Rights Watch's Kltalahti. "And also that is impossible to monitor, because of the lack of transparency surrounding the death penalty in China."
The legal situation in China has left the door open to abuse in the organ-transplant business.
Until July 1, there were no laws requiring written permission from organ donors. Nor did institutions have to verify that organs came from legal sources. Nor did ethics committees have to approve each transplant in advance.
The Chinese government says that nevertheless, all transplant operations took place voluntarily according to the guidelines of the World Health Organization (WHO), which includes most of the conditions just mentioned.
In July, legislation has come into force setting these conditions as legal requirements. But as Matas and Kilgour point out, implementing laws that are on the statute books has not always been China's strength.
They say it is unclear whether this organ harvesting -- if it is occurring -- is backed by official policy in Beijing, or whether it is a result of greed of individual hospitals that have literally been able to get away with murder.