Nothing Will Change Without Sanctions, Says Israeli Doctor Behind China Boycott

The academic boycott of Chinese doctors is a very significant pressure tactic,' says Israeli author of International Society for Heart & Lung Transplantation’s declaration of boycott against China.

Published in "Haaretz":

After years of receiving reports about thousands of transplant operations being carried out in China contrary to the rules of medical ethics, this June the International Society for Heart & Lung Transplantation issued a declaration acknowledging that China executes prisoners in order to harvest their organs for transplantation.

As a result, doctors from China will no longer be able to publish their research in the society’s prestigious medical journal or to present the results of their work at its annual conference. Practically speaking, the decision amounts to the imposition of an academic boycott on Chinese researchers and surgeons who deal with heart and lung transplants, keeping them out of the international transplantation community.

The organization’s statement explains that there is an accepted ethical framework for organ transplantation, and in particular for heart and lung transplantation. This framework consists of several rules, including that the source of the organ can only be a donation – not through coercion, and not through buying and selling.

Medical ethics also require that the process be conducted transparently, under regulation and subject to national and international oversight. In light of all this, and based on the UN Declaration of Human Rights, the Declaration of Helsinki (regarding medical experiments on humans), the Declaration of Istanbul (regarding organ trafficking and “transplant tourism”) and the World Medical Association’s statement on the transplantation of organs and tissues, the international group is explicitly instructing its members not to cooperate with surgeons and researchers who took part or are liable to take part in “transplantation crimes” such as harvesting organs from condemned prisoners or organ trafficking.

The declaration was issued in wake of a study published in April of this year, which found proof that from 1980 to 2015, China made frequent use of vital organs that were harvested from people who were executed for this purpose. Thus the Chinese authorities and medical establishment violated the most important ethical rule regarding transplantation – the Dead Donor Rule, which forbids the donation of vital organs from living donors and causing a person’s death in order to harvest their organs.

The study also found that Chinese doctors essentially participated in executions. It proves the allegations that have been made against China for many years by human rights activists and investigative journalists, as well as an international tribunal headed by British jurist Sir Geoffrey Nice, which found that “the Chinese campaign of forcible organ harvesting from innocent victims is a crime against humanity and one of the gravest atrocities of the modern age.”

Among the main victims of this practice were members of the Falun Gong, a spiritual movement that was outlawed in China 20 years ago and which faces persecution from the authorities. In recent years, the list of victims has also included the ethnic minorities in Xinjiang Province in northwest China, particularly the Uyghur minority.

The organs harvested from executed victims are allegedly sold to wealthy Chinese in need of a transplant as well as to “transplant tourists” from other countries, who can find information about transplants in China in advertisements that appear in English, Russian and Arabic on the websites of Chinese hospitals.

A website for an agency from Tianjin that offers foreigners transplants in China.
A website for an agency from Tianjin that offers foreigners transplants in China.Credit: Screenshot

The authors of the April study were Matthew Robertson, a doctoral candidate at the School for Politics and International Relations at Australian National University in Canberra, and Prof. Jacob (Jay) Lavee, who is also the senior author of the ISHLT declaration on Chinese organ transplantation. Lavi is a medical consultant to the Sheba Medical Center administration and a member of the transplantation organization’s ethics committee. He established and formerly ran the heart transplant unit at Sheba and served as president of the Israel Transplantation Society.

“The academic boycott of Chinese doctors is a very significant pressure tactic that has previously shown that it can bring about change,” Lavee says, noting that a similar academic boycott of China by international transplantation societies was lifted in 2015 following China’s announcement of the reform of its transplantation system.

“We know that the Chinese did institute a reform, but they also still continue with the organ trafficking and the use of organs from executed prisoners,” Lavee says. He says he hopes that the new declaration will pave the way for other international societies to follow suit. “I’m not so naïve as to think that the desired change in China will come solely from the medical community. If diplomatic sanctions at the level of international relations are not added to the academic pressure, there won’t be any change.”

Prof. Jacob (Jay) Lavee, who is also the senior author of the ISHLT declaration on Chinese organ transplantation. Photo: Tomer Applebaum

The ISHLT is a professional and interdisciplinary international organization whose mission statement says it is “dedicated to improving the care of patients with advanced heart or lung disease through transplantation, mechanical support and innovative therapies via research, education and advocacy.” It has approximately 3,000 members in 50 countries. For years Lavee has been involved in the subject of the medical ethics of transplantation in China and other countries. In 2008, he helped author the Israeli legislation preventing insurance companies and health maintenance organizations from funding transplants for Israelis in countries that engage in organ trafficking.

Lavee says that pressure was exerted on the ISHLT leadership to get it to back off of the boycott. But despite the pressure, the society issued its declaration and became the first international medical society to impose a new boycott on the Chinese medical establishment.

“Practically speaking, doctors’ academic advancement is dependent upon their ability to publish in scientific journals and present at conferences. Now those possibilities are blocked to the Chinese and I hope that this pressure will bring about an end to the criminal use of the organs of condemned prisoners,” Lavee says.

‘People just disappear in the middle of the night and their organs are harvested ‘

China experts and activists claim that the repression of minorities in Xinjiang has escalated in recent years, with thousands of Uighur Muslims in ‘reeducation camps’ being murdered and their organs harvested for wealthy Chinese and foreign patients. The Chinese deny all such allegations.

David Stavrou

Published in "Haaretz":

“The interrogation started at 9 P.M. and ended around noon the next day. The five officers didn’t hit me, but there was a sixth man and he beat me and threatened me. ‘I’ll remove your organs,’ he said, ‘and burn what’s left of your body.’” 

This is what Huiqiong Liu told Haaretz recently in a video call from her home in Europe. Liu was arrested at her Beijing home in 2001 when she was 29 years old, and taken for “reeducation through labor” as part of the Chinese government’s battle with Falun Gong – the spiritual movement that has been persecuted by the authorities since the late 1990s. 

Liu was in the camp for about 18 months, and was imprisoned again between 2005 and 2007. She says that during her first imprisonment, she was taken to a hospital for tests. “I told [a doctor] I have a heart problem, but she said my heart is fine. I asked if they’re planning to take it away from me, and the doctor said: ‘That will be decided by someone at a higher level.’” Liu decided to go on hunger strike. Eight days later, she weighed just 88 pounds (40 kilograms) and the doctors decided that her organs were no longer viable.

Liu says she also underwent blood tests, blood pressure tests, X-rays and ECGs during her incarceration. “Sometimes they would take us to a hospital; other times, a large vehicle full of medical equipment would come to the camp and the checkups would be done in it,” Liu recalls. “They gave us all numbers and the doctors would follow-up on our situation. The doctors only knew the numbers, not our names. Sometimes they would ask for a specific number to be taken to the hospital. Those people never came back.”

Liu says she has another vital piece of evidence: “Before I was taken to the hospital during my first arrest, they gave me a form to sign with my fingerprints,” she recounts. “The form was already filled out but the name and address on it wasn’t mine, it was a name I didn’t recognize. I didn’t want to sign, but they made me do so anyway. They didn’t let me see what it was I was signing, but when I asked other women who were arrested with me, one of them – a woman who was sentenced to death – told me it was a consent form, saying I’m willing to donate my organs after I die.”

‘Harvesting never left’

In recent decades, alongside China’s rising political and economic power, reports have also surfaced of human rights violations and methodical oppression of minorities and opponents of the regime. 

During this time, the Chinese authorities have been accused of torture, executions and organ harvesting from tens of thousands of Falun Gong practitioners and selling the organs to patients in need of transplants. Repression, ethnic cleansing and even genocide of minorities living in the Xinjiang province, northwestern China, has also been alleged. 

According to numerous testimonies, minority groups – the largest of whom are the Uighur (aka Uyghur) Muslims, who number some 12 million – are suffering restrictions on their rights and liberties, surveillance and privacy invasions, separation of children from parents and forced abortions. It is believed that more than 1 million members of minority groups in Xinjiang are now in “reeducation camps,” which combine violent indoctrination with forced labor, rape and torture.

A number of international researchers and human rights activists say the oppression of minorities in Xinjiang has only grown worse, and that some prisoners are being murdered and their organs harvested. 

Ethan Gutmann, an independent researcher who’s considered a world expert on this issue, unequivocally believes the practice is occurring. “Harvesting never left Xinjiang, it just took a vacation,” he tells Haaretz. “The Chinese Communist Party [CCP] first experimented with the live organ harvesting of death row criminals on the execution grounds of Xinjiang as early as 1994. By 1997, surgeons were extracting livers and kidneys from Uighur political and religious prisoners for high-ranking CCP cadres – small-scale, but it set a precedent. 

“The explosion in transplant activity that followed and the use of surgeons as executioners?” he asks rhetorically. “This was fueled by Falun Gong organs. Now China appears to be running out of young and healthy Falun Gong, and, like ‘a dog returning to its vomit,’ the party’s killing machine has returned to Xinjiang.”

Gutmann, 62, authored the 2014 book “The Slaughter: Mass Killings, Organ Harvesting, and China’s Secret Solution to Its Dissident Problem,” is co-founder of the International Coalition to End Transplant Abuse in China (ETAC), a China Studies research fellow at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation (VOC) and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2017.

Ethan Gutmann Photo: Simon Gross

The executions and organ harvesting are not sporadic or local, he says. “China’s transplant volume is 60,000 to 100,000 transplants per year. Beijing has no intention of dismantling its vast transplant infrastructure. Over 15 million Uighurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and Hui have been blood tested, compatible with tissue matching. Over 1 million are in camps. So yes, the CCP has created a policy of ethnic cleansing – a potentially very profitable one,” the American scholar asserts.

Matthew Robertson is anothe research fellow at the VOC and a doctoral student at Australian National University, Canberra. He told Haaretz that while China claims to be performing over 20,000 transplants annually, sourced exclusively from voluntary donors, the figures appear to have been falsified, since they conform “extraordinarily closely to a simple mathematical function, and because of numerous artefacts throughout the data sets that are indicative or otherwise inexplicable except for human manipulation.”

According to Robertson, there’s a direct connection between the mass incarceration of Uighurs in Xinjiang and the rise in organ transplants. “Over the last couple of years – during the same period organ transplants from ‘volunteers’ are claimed to have grown rapidly – over a million Uighurs have been incarcerated in detention camps and prisons,” he says. 

At the same time, he adds, “reports have emerged of Uighurs being subjected to blood tests and other medical examinations consistent with those required to assess organ health, which is a prerequisite for organ matching and transplantation. There’s a history of the use of prisoners, including non-death row prisoners, for their organs. So in the end, it’s very much about where the burden of proof should reside,” Robertson says.

Robertson and Gutmann aren’t the only ones to suspect the Chinese regime. An international tribunal based in London and headed by leading British human rights prosecutor Sir Geoffrey Nice published a report last year declaring that China’s campaign of forced organ harvesting against innocent victims was a “crime against humanity,” constituting one of the world’s “worst atrocities committed” in modern times. 

Like the tribunal, law-makers and politicians in countries such as Canada, The US and the UK have begun to shed a light on China's Xinjiang policies, as well as Uighur leaders abroad who are trying to raise awareness. Dolkun Isa, President of the World Uyghur Congress, said: "We have real fears that the Chinese government may be cremating the bodies of detainees to hide evidence of torture, execution, and organ harvesting. We are also deeply disturbed by reports of the Chinese authorities collecting blood samples from the entire Uighur population in East Turkestan (Xinjiang), and establishing a DNA database from these samples. We do not know its purpose. But it could be used to match prisoners’ organs with patients who need transplants".

According to Rushan Abbas, the founder and executive director of "Campaign for Uyghurs", China has established “organ farms,” where millions of people are forced to undergo DNA testing and are “prepped for slaughter”, she said in a 2019 speech, “In the beginning of the Holocaust, countries around the world continued to do business with Germany, enabling their economies while millions of innocent people were being attained and held in concentration camps,” she added, “I don’t know what it takes to get the attention of world leaders for action. Don’t let it come to mass executions and gas chambers.”

Xinjiang Camp, photo: Ng Han Guan/AP

‘Something wild’

In the 1990s, Envar Tohti was a young surgeon in a hospital north of the city of Ürümqi, the capital of Xinjiang. He tells Haaretz that in 1995, two senior surgeons asked him if he “wanted to do something wild.” In a phone interview from his home in London, Tohti recounts: “They asked me to pick up the largest mobile operation kit and bring assistants, nurses and anesthesiologists to the hospital gate at 9:30 the next morning and join an ambulance, which was in fact just a van with a bed in it. 

“The next morning, we assembled at the gate and the chief surgeons told us to follow them in a convey. We drove toward our branch hospital in the western mountain district, but halfway through our journey, we turned left and our driver said we were going to the western mountain execution ground.” 

At that moment, he says, “I felt chilly even in the hot summer.” There was a hill at the site, Tohti recalls, and the surgeons told him “to wait there, ‘and come around when you hear gun shots.’ I was scared, wondering why we were here.”

Tohti says he then heard gunshots. “We jumped into the van and drove toward the entrance to the field. There were between 10 to 20 corpses. They had shaved heads and were dressed in prison uniform. Their foreheads were blown up. They were shot in the back of the head. A police officer – I think he was one of the executioners – shouted at us: ‘The one on the far right is yours.’ I was confused. I moved to the location and our surgeons held me and told me: ‘Hurry up, extract the liver and two kidneys.’”

Tohti says he did as he was told. “I turned into a robot trained to carry out its duty,” he says. “The officers and my assistants put the body on the bed already inside the van. The victim was a man in his 30s.” 

The senior surgeons apparently kept an eye on Tohti and when he asked to administer anesthesia, he was told there was no need because the man was already dead. “So I started my insertion, a cut designed as an upside-down ‘T’ shape to expose internal organs as wide as possible. My scalpel found its way cutting his skin. Blood could be seen, which implies that his heart was still pumping blood. He was alive! My chief surgeon whispered to me: ‘Hurry up!’”

The operation took some 30 to 40 minutes. When it ended, Tohti says, “The chief surgeons happily put the organs into a weird-looking box and said ‘OK, now take your team back to hospital. And remember – nothing happened here today.’ This was a command. No one talked about it ever since.” The events Tohti recounted happened 25 years ago. But researchers say the situation in Xinjiang has grown much worse since then. 

‘Like a monkey’

Abduweli Ayup, 46, is a linguist who now dedicates his life to the education and preservation of the Uighur language and culture, and lives in Europe. He was arrested in August 2013 and incarcerated for 15 months at three different prisons in Ürümqi. Though it’s widely claimed that the “reeducation camps” were only established in 2017, Ayup says the prisons in Xinjiang were operating the same way for years beforehand. “They were at the same places, the same conditions, the same uniform and the same rules,” he tells Haaretz, adding that when he was arrested in his hometown of Kashgar he was gang-raped by other prisoners who were ordered to do so by Chinese officers. 

Ayup says that in the first prison, he was the “victim of a cruel prison hierarchy orchestrated by the regime.” There were 17 prisoners in his cell, he says, explaining that he was one of the 12 “low-status” political prisoners forced to wear a yellow uniform. “There was no room for us on the beds, so we slept on the floor close to the toilet, which was a bucket covering a hole in the floor exposed to all. When we slept, the other prisoners’ pee drops fell on us,” he says.

The higher-status prisoners were drug dealers and murderers, Ayup reports. “One was in charge and he could decide to violently punish the others; another would execute the punishments, while a third and a fourth would guard and document them.” He says he witnessed and suffered countless acts of violence, humiliation, torture and sexual abuse. 

Abdewali Ayup photo: Issa Shaker

With lights on 24/7, cameras on the ceiling, a never-ending stench from the toilets and a strict schedule of indoctrination, this was just the first of the three camps where Ayup was imprisoned. 

In the second prison, he had an encounter he will never forget. “A man called Abdul Rahman was brought into the cell,” he says. “He was a political prisoner too, accused of separatism. I was shocked because he had a red uniform – the uniform of the people who are sentenced to death. His legs were chained and one of his hands was chained to his legs. Someone told me he has been held like that for two years. He slept in our cell, and I couldn’t sleep that night. The next morning, he requested that after his death his body be cleansed according to Uighur tradition, but the guards refused. When his arms and legs were finally freed, he couldn’t stand up so he had to walk with his hands. Like a monkey.” 

Ayup says that later, when he was finally released and fled to Turkey, he met Abdul Rahman’s wife and a couple of his friends. “His wife said that after the execution, the family was notified but she was only allowed to see his face, not his body,” he recounts. “The family was not allowed to wash the body and they were allowed to visit the grave only a month after the execution. 

“Even then, they were told that they were not allowed to plant a flower in the soil beside the grave, as is customary in Uighur tradition, for at least a year,” Ayup continues. “The family were told by workers at the ‘burial administration’ that organs are usually removed from executed prisoners, and that’s why families are not allowed to see the bodies.”

This part of Ayup's account matches the account of Jiang Li whose father was arrested as a Falun Gong practitioner in 2008 and sent to a labor camp in Chongquing in central China. In January 2009, a day after Li visited him and found him healthy, the family was notified that he had died.

"After my father died in prison", says Li, "we were allowed to go and see him. We were only allowed to see the head, not the body. We were not allowed to enter the room with cell phones or cameras. After a physical search, my sister entered first. They opened the refrigerator where they kept the body and opened it just enough to see the head. My sister touched the head and felt it was still warm. She shouted 'he's alive!' and we immediately ran inside, we were able to take out the body and touch the chest. It was still warm. Then about 10 policemen ran in and pulled us out. My sister tried to revive my father but she was pushed away. The whole thing only took five minutes and we never saw our father again".

Top secret files

Dr. Alim (not his real name) worked as a physician at the university hospital in Ürümqi for a decade, before leaving China. “In 2016,” he tells Haaretz, “a new department was opened at the hospital. It was a liver transplantation coordinating department and the department head’s office was close to mine.” 

When the department head was out, Alim says, “some of the patients who came to see him stepped over to my office and we sometimes chatted. These were wealthy people, they weren’t local – I remember some of them being from Shanghai, Beijing and even South Korea. When I asked them what they were doing here, they said they were patients in need of a liver transplant and that it took 24 hours between the time they had their checkup and DNA test until a matching organ was found for them.” (The waiting period in most countries is at least a few months.)

Alim says he recalled at least two instances in which he came across files of transplant patients. “In one case, all the information about the person who received the liver was in place – name, age, medical status, and so on,” he recalls. “But in the file of the so-called donor, there was no identifying information and instead of a name there was just ‘XXX.’” 

According to Alim, all of the transplant files at the hospital were kept secret and most of the doctors were not given access to them. “In another case, I noticed there was a name on a consent form – but the name didn’t match the name of the person who signed the form. Medical forms don’t include prices, but it was common knowledge that a liver costs a minimum of 100,000 RMB [about $15,000].”  

The Uighur doctor also believes there’s a connection between what’s happening in Xinjiang and the hospital transplants. “Many Uighurs disappeared after the massacre of July 5,” he says, referring to violent clashes between rival Uighur and Han Chinese protesters in Ürümqi in 2009, which resulted in hundreds of deaths and injuries. 

“Since then, the number of transplants at my hospital grew dramatically,” Alim says. “In 2007-08, there were about 60 to 70 transplants a year. I first saw patients from outside of Ürümqi in 2009, and since then it was around 200 transplants a year. The new coordinating department finally opened in 2016. That was also when I remember all Uighurs in Ürümqi being summoned to local clinics, in order to provide blood and DNA samples and medical data.”

In response to questions for this story, the Chinese Embassy in Israel told Haaretz: “Vocational education and training centers operate legally, and citizen donations are the only legal source for organ transplants,” in China.

A 2014 Chinese hospital add which has since disappeared from the internet.

Constructing crematoria 

Gutmann wanted to look more deeply into claims of organ harvesting in Xinjiang, so he went to Kazakhstan earlier this year and looked for people who had been released from the “reeducation camps.” Once there, he says he drove around in an old car and refrained from using the internet or electronic devices that could reveal his identity. 

“I disappeared, and this gave me the freedom to do confidential interviews with witnesses who still had family in the camps,” he says. Gutmann spoke with approximately two dozen people, who all indicated a clear pattern. “Every year, about 2.5 to 5 percent of healthy individuals in the camps simply disappear in the middle of the night. On average, they’re 28 – Beijing’s preferred age for harvesting.” This, he says, explains the “health checks” that Uighurs undergo in Xinjiang.

Gutmann believes at least 25,000 people are murdered every year in Xinjiang and their organs harvested. To streamline the process, he says, the Chinese created “fast lanes” for the movement of human organs in local airports, while crematoria have recently been constructed throughout the province. 

One of these was discovered by chance thanks to a job ad in a local Ürümqi newspaper, seeking 50 security guards for work at a crematorium, on a salary of about $1,200 a month – “a small fortune in that part of the world,” Gutmann says. “I don’t know about you, but the presence of 50 security guards in a single crematorium sends a chill up my spine,” he adds. 

The majority of the clients for these organs are wealthy Chinese people, according to Gutmann. But the big profit margins come from medical tourists: Japanese, South Koreans, Germans – and Muslims from the Gulf states. “The theory is that they have a preference for organs taken from people who don’t eat pork,” he explains.

Gutmann says the Chinese themselves have admitted that until 2015, they harvested organs from death row prisoners after execution, though they never released precise numbers or admitted that these were political prisoners. He adds that the Chinese have taken advantage of their power on the world stage to silence criticism, and that international institutions such as the World Health Organization chose in 2016 to present the Chinese transplant industry as a case of successful reform. 

The problem, Gutmann concludes, is that “they never saw the human rights catastrophe in Xinjiang coming. Now they’re left in an indefensible position.” Anyhow, the researcher says, the phenomenon of organ harvesting is known, but the Chinese have extensive influence in the international medical establishment. Only a handful of doctors and physicians came out as opposers to these Chinese practices, one of them being the Israeli Dr. Jacob Lavee, Director of Sheba's Heart Transplantation Unit, who was the force behind the Israeli transplant law which blocks "organ transplant tourism" from Israel to China.

“Every major media that I can think of in the West has reported on this crime during the last four years,” he says. “Not on the front page perhaps, but as I’m sure your readers are aware, The New York Times didn’t put the Holocaust on the front page until after 1945 either.”

China's Embassy in Israel's responce:

Firstly, regarding the Vocational Education and Training Centers. From 1990 to 2016, separatists, religious extremists and terrorists have plotted and carried out several thousand violent terrorist attacks in Xinjiang. Many innocent people were killed and several hundred police officers died while performing their duty. Terrorism and extremism are the common scourge confronting the humanity. It is for the purpose of counter-terrorism, deradicalization and saving those who were deceived by extremist ideas that Vocational Education and Training Centers were built in China, and their operation has always been in strict accordance with the law. In essence, the Education and Training Centers are no different from the deradicalization centers in many countries around the world, and they do not target any specific region, ethnicity and religion.

 The Vocational Education and Training Centers fully protect the personal dignity and freedom of trainees in accordance with the basic principles of the Chinese Constitution and the laws on respecting and protecting human rights. These Centers are education and training institutions that deliver the curriculum including standard spoken and written Chinese, laws and regulations, vocational skills, and deradicalization. Trainees can have home visits, ask for leave to attend to private affairs and have freedom of communication. The relatives of the trainees are fully aware of their training through telephone or video chat as well as visiting the trainees.

 The number of people participating in Vocational Education and Training programs is not fixed, some in and some out from time to time. It is purely fabricated and baseless to say that there are “around one million or even two million trainees” by some media. Vocational Education and Training centers are special efforts in special times. By the end of 2019, all the trainees of the Vocational Education and Training Centers have reached the training requirements and graduated. Most of them have obtained vocational qualification certificates or vocational skill level certificates and found decent jobs.

 In the future, Xinjiang will provide regular and open educational training programs to meet the needs of local people to improve their skills, based on principles of respect for their will, independent decision, categorized training programs and freedom to join or leave.

Secondly, regarding the question about organ transplantation. The Chinese government has consistently followed the WHO guidelines on human organ transplantation. In recent years China has further strengthened the management of organ transplantation. In 2007, the State Council of China promulgated and implemented the Regulations on Human Organ Transplantation, which stipulates that organ donation should follow the principle of being voluntary and for free. The sale of human organs is strictly prohibited in China. Since January 1st 2015, the use of death row prisoners’ organs as a source for transplantation has been completely banned and citizen donation is the only legal source for organ transplantation.

 Last but not least, I would like to emphasize that some international forces with ulterior motives have fabricated some lies distorting facts, smeared and attacked China’s policy of governing Xinjiang, in an attempt to contain China’s development. We hope our Israeli friends keep your eyes open and not be deceived by those lies.

Code Red

Chinese Institutes at Universities Are Under Fire, but Israeli Scholars Insist There's No Undue Influence. Are these Beijing-funded entities disseminating China’s contentious policies to the West under the guise of language courses, cultural events and research programs?

Published in Haaretz:

Apr 20, 2019 3:39 PM

In the past, the Chinese Communist Party worked hard to suppress the legacy of Confucius. But in recent years it has been making extensive – and some would say cynical – use of the name and thought of the renowned philosopher, who lived from 551 to 479 B.C.E. The most salient example is the Confucius Institutes and Confucius Classrooms, educational institutions which teach the Chinese language and culture and operate in some 150 countries. The institutions are established at the initiative and with the funding of Hanban, the Office of Chinese Language Council International, which is accountable to China’s Ministry of Education and represents the interests of the Communist Party.

In recent years, however, the institutes have come under fierce criticism on the grounds that they engage in censorship, disseminate propaganda and restrict academic freedom. More than 20 institutes have shut down as a result, and there are calls for greater transparency from those that continue to operate. According to the official data, 548 Confucius Institutes now operate worldwide, including in Israel, along with 1,193 smaller Confucius Classrooms. In a certain sense, the institutes, which are funded to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars a year, resemble international organizations that promote language and culture, such as the British Council and Germany’s Goethe Institute. But a closer examination reveals dramatic differences.

In contrast to their European counterparts, the Confucius Institutes are located within existing academic institutions and operate in tandem with Asian studies departments under a contract between Hanban and the host university. Chinese government funding for each institute can be as much as $200,000 annually. The institutes draw on teaching materials from China and in many cases employ Chinese staff who are paid by their home country. In return, the universities provide office space, computers and access to the students. The contract contains clauses that subordinate the institute to the head office in Beijing; it prohibits activity that is contrary to Chinese laws and regulations.

The lesser allegations against the institutes maintain that their presence on campus, combined with economic, legal and political pressure, restricts academic freedom and leads to self-censorship by students, lecturers and researchers. More extreme allegations hint that the Confucius Institutes are forward positions that serve Chinese interests by collecting information and engaging in industrial espionage under the cover of Chinese language courses, cultural events and academic research.

Eyes on the prize

There are two Confucius Institutes operating in Israel. The first opened at Tel Aviv University in 2007 and the second at Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 2014. Senior Chinese officials, including the deputy prime minister, Liu Yandong, attended the opening ceremony in Jerusalem. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose visit to China a year earlier paved the way for the institute’s establishment, sent a recorded message with greetings.

“The decision to open a Confucius Institute, which is involved in the East Asian Studies Department and is headed by a tenured professor who gets a salary to study China without any pressure, is a distinct and clear conflict of interest,” says Noam Urbach, who teaches Chinese at Bar-Ilan University and is an Asian studies doctoral student at the University of Haifa. “There’s no reason to open an institute of this kind in the university, or for its cooperation with the department, other than to engage in censorship, exert pressure and limit academic freedom.”

Urbach cites a number of issues in the study of contemporary China that Beijing considers sensitive, which the Chinese authorities make every effort to keep out of public discourse. “Human rights in China, for example, can’t be mentioned,” he says. “Nor can you talk about domestic political problems or about the suppression of minorities such as the Uyghur community,” a reference to the persecuted Muslim group in the country.

“China can open whatever institution it wishes, from Mount Hermon to Eilat,” says Urbach, “But to allow it to operate within a university is like letting Likud open a [Ze’ev] Jabotinsky Institute in the political science department.”

Even though pressure on the local universities is not absolute and the influence emanating from Beijing can be restrained, Urbach believes it is impossible to ignore the negative effects. The academics who research these issues are liable to pay a price. One of Israel’s leading sinologists, Prof. (Emeritus) Yitzhak Shichor, was blacklisted and blocked from visiting China after he contributed to a book of essays about Xinjiang, an autonomous territory of the Uyghur people in northwest China.

“In 2000-2001 I took part in a research project about Xinjiang, which was conducted at Johns Hopkins University,” Shichor says. “A Chinese professor claimed that the project encourages Uyghur isolationism in Xinjiang, which was absolute nonsense. In the wake of his complaint, the Chinese leadership decided to blacklist all 16 participants. I was the only non-American. For 15 years, with the exception of one year, I couldn’t get a visa for China.” Three years ago, he says, something changed. “I was asked to help with the establishment of an institute for Middle East research in Sun Yat-sen University in southern China. After that, not only did I receive a visa and get invited to conferences, I also received comfortable conditions. A few weeks ago, I was awarded a lifetime achievement prize by the China Cultural Center in Israel.”

But Urbach finds it difficult to agree. “There is tremendous self-censorship among researchers of China in Israel,” he observes. “It goes well beyond the dreams of every cadre in the Communist Party.” He cites as an example the fact that Israeli students who did not want to endanger their participation in the institutes’ programs – which offer scholarships, student exchanges and trips to China – opted to stay away from a meeting with the author of an important report on Chinese government suppression of Falun Gong, a spiritual practice. There are allegations in the international community that Falun Gong practitioners have been sent to “reeducation camps,” that hundreds have been executed and that they are subjected to organ harvesting for commercial purposes.

“The Confucius Institutes distribute coveted scholarships for studies in China, and students are afraid that they will lose out on a scholarship if they’re reported to have participated in a conference of that kind,” continues Urbach. “The institutes have the right to operate like that, but why should an East Asian studies department cooperate with them? … The university’s interest does not lie in the annual budget of $100,000 or $200,000 – that’s peanuts. What’s important is the potential for other agreements in hefty areas such as biotechnology and nanotechnology. It’s important for universities to receive research budgets from China and postdoctoral students from Chinese universities. That’s the real motivation.”

‘Separate and distinct’

Various sources, including Chinese exiles, international intelligence agencies and independent researchers alike have accused the Confucius Institutes of engaging in industrial espionage, collecting information and exerting pressure on Chinese citizens living outside the country, and collaborating with the United Front Work Department, a mysterious agency under the auspices of the Communist Party in China and elsewhere. Even if these claims are exaggerated, one cannot deny the influence wielded by the Confucius Institutes on the discourse about China, which senior Chinese official Li Changchun described in 2009 as “an important part of China’s propaganda apparatus abroad.”

Dr. Lihi Yariv-Laor, head of the Confucius Institute at Hebrew University, rejects such allegations outright. “The researchers and professors here enjoy full academic freedom,” she says. “To this day, during the five years of existence of the Confucius Institute at Hebrew University, the Chinese side has not dictated anything to us.”

Yariv-Laor, a former head of the university’s Department of East Asian Studies and until 2018 the academic chairwoman of both the Education Ministry’s committee on Chinese studies and the Council for Higher Education’s steering committee to further Israel-China relations, maintains that the status of the Confucius Institute at Hebrew University is unique. As opposed to most institutes, the branch in Jerusalem is research-oriented and does not engage in teaching the Chinese language or culture, which have been taught in courses elsewhere in the university for years. In addition to Yariv-Laor, the institute’s staff consists of an associate director sent from Beijing’s Peking University and an administrative coordinator. The salaries of the Israeli employees are paid by Hebrew University while the associate director’s salary is paid by Hanban.

“Hanban supplies the institute with materials, books, decorations and various accessories such as calendars,” Yariv-Laor says. “It does not dictate the use of any textbooks. The teachers of the Chinese language, who are subordinate to the Hebrew University’s languages unit, decide exclusively about the curriculum.” She adds, “Never have we received from anyone in China a directive about which issues to address and which issues not to address, and there are no Chinese guidelines according to which the institute operates. The criteria for prizes and scholarships are also decided by the Asian studies professors alone. They are academic criteria, according to the university’s rules, and they have nothing to do with any body in China.”

In addition to academic activities, Yariv-Laor says, the institute offers financial support for Asian studies students who give talks on China in high schools in and around Jerusalem, and organizes transportation for high-schoolers who study Chinese in the Jerusalem area. The institute also supports a two-week study tour in China for Israeli teenagers.

Her views are echoed by Prof. Asaf Goldschmidt, an East Asian studies professor at Tel Aviv University who heads the Confucius Institute there. “There are no direct or hidden restrictions on subjects for discussion at the Confucius Institute,” he explains. “The content of academic conferences is decided solely by the organizers of the conference or the organizing committee. We have never received a ‘grocery list’ of subjects that may or may not be discussed, and to this day, to the best of my knowledge, no restrictions or censorship have been imposed on the institute’s activity, and of course not on the activities of the East Asian Studies Department.”

The Confucius Institute at Tel Aviv University is funded by Hanban and operates in cooperation with Renmin University in Beijing, whose representative is part of the institute. According to Goldschmidt, the partnership takes the form of scientific conferences, student exchanges and reciprocal visits by faculty members; the department at TAU and the institute are two separate and distinct entities.

“The department, its students and its researchers often deal with controversial subjects,” Goldschmidt adds. “A salient example is a conference the department recently held in which a whole session dealt with issues of minorities in a completely open way.”

Rising tide of opposition

Several prominent incidents raised suspicions about the Chinese bodies in charge of research and education. In New Zealand, accusations were leveled at the Chinese authorities when burglars broke into the home, office and car of researcher Prof. Anne-Marie Brady after she published studies about Chinese policy in Antarctica and China’s use of “soft power” in the West. According to reports in the local media, the burglars only took her computers and cellphone but ignored other valuables.

In another headline-making incident in 2014, the director of Hanban ordered her staff to tear out pages containing information about academic institutions in Taiwan from a conference program in Portugal. In 2017, China stopped funding Chinese scholars studying at the University of California, San Diego after it hosted the Dalai Lama.

Yet another highly publicized incident occurred in 2008, when a photography exhibit about the suppression of the Falun Gong movement was removed from Tel Aviv University. Following a lawsuit filed by the exhibit’s organizers, the court ordered the university to remount the show and pay the organizers 45,000 shekels (about $11,000). The judge noted that the decision to remove the exhibit was made in part after pressure, apparently from the Chinese Embassy, was brought to bear on the dean of students.

A particularly fraught case happened a number of years ago in Canada, which is home to many Chinese immigrants. In 2012, the Toronto District School Board signed an agreement with the Chinese government to fund a branch of the institute that would offer Chinese language instruction to hundreds of thousands of Canadian students.

“The agreement wasn’t made public and didn’t get media coverage, even though it was supposed to bring about the establishment of the biggest Confucius Institute in the world,” says Doris Liu, a Canadian film director who made a documentary on the subject in 2017, called “In the Name of Confucius.” “In 2014, the festive opening ceremony [of the institute] was held in the presence of senior figures from China. At that stage, the public became aware of the program and a protest started by parents who were concerned that their children would be brainwashed.”

The protest quickly gained momentum. There were letters and petitions, Liu relates, and panicky conversations with members of the schools’ boards of directors, together with fierce demonstrations. Liu’s film documents the dramatic struggle and its protagonists: a Chinese teacher who defected from the institute and was granted asylum in Canada; a senior figure in the Canadian education system who had worked to develop the ties with the Chinese and resigned for vague reasons; and a Canadian intelligence official who warned that the institute would be a Trojan horse and claimed that Chinese-Canadian organizations were faking popular support for the institutes.

The parents were victorious: Not long after the institute’s inauguration, the agreement was canceled. Naturally, the Chinese were not pleased with Liu’s film, and she says they are still trying to prevent it from being shown. “A screening at Victoria University in Melbourne, which has a Confucius Institute, was canceled. The Australian press discovered afterward that the cancelation was due to the intervention of the Chinese consulate,” she says, adding that the Chinese also tried to interfere with screenings in New Zealand and Japan.

Public criticism in Toronto resonated beyond the city and brought about the closure of other Confucius Institutes in Ontario and in Quebec. And Canada is not alone: More than 20 other institutes have shut down in recent years, including ones at the University of Chicago, Pennsylvania State University and other colleges in Texas and Florida. Institutes in Sweden, Denmark, France and Germany have also closed.

The first Confucius Institute in Europe, established in 2005 at Stockholm University, also shuttered in 2015. Alberto Tiscornia, the head of the Department of Asian, Middle Eastern and Turkish Studies, emphasizes that the institute closed due to “legal difficulties and issues of proper administration.” The reason for an end to the cooperation, he explains, “was the problematic character of hosting an institute that is financed by another country on the university’s grounds.” The case sparked criticism in the media and a demonstration by Chinese exiles.

“There is a certain naiveté amongst university bureaucrats in the West. In China’s political reality there are no independent units, they are all managed by the [Communist] Party down to the smallest detail,” the Swedish journalist Ingvar Oja wrote. “The teachers who are sent abroad are handpicked by the party and are party loyalists.”

The complexity of the ties with China may be gleaned, perhaps, from comments by Prof. Daniel Leese, an expert on Chinese history and politics from the University of Freiburg in Germany.

“After June 4th [the date of the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989], many said we should cut our ties with China,” he says. “But how should we then keep in dialogue with the Chinese at various levels? Confucius Institutes like the ones here in Germany make the connection possible. Cross-cultural dialogue is always complicated, but the people in the institutes are individuals, and if you do it properly, real dialogue is possible. The party doesn’t have total control of what Chinese citizens think, as is sometimes described in the media. But we should also be aware of the fact that many within the Chinese populace are simply not waiting for liberal democracy to arrive, especially given recent developments in the West.”

Leese is aware of the fact that his research, which focuses on how China’s Communist Party copes with wrongdoings and atrocities that occurred during Mao Zedong’s rule, drew the attention of the authorities. There is general surveillance of what he and others are doing, he says. His academic freedom in Germany has not been compromised, he notes, but when he’s in China, pressure is put on people who work with him.

“I have to be careful who I work with,” he explains. “In recent years things have become harder and our access to archives, sources and people to interview isn’t as good as it used to be. Once the rules were clearer; today I’m not sure what things will be like in the years to come.”