A wave of corporate media reports on Chinese organ harvesting rely without acknowledgement on front groups connected to the far-right Falun Gong cult, whose followers believe “Trump was sent by heaven to destroy the Communist Party.”
By Ryan McCarthy
Western corporate media outlets have gone wild with claims that the Chinese state is “harvesting” the organs of ethnic minorities and political opposition figures. But an investigation by The Grayzone has found that these allegations originate from front groups run by the far-right opposition cult Falun Gong.
Falun Gong, whose devotees can often be seen clad in yellow and performing coordinated qi gong routines in crowded city centers, runs an ultra-conservative, staunchly pro-Donald Trump media network that has been compared to Alex Jones’ Infowars.
According to a former member of the fringe religious group, Falun Gong believes that an apocalyptic judgement day is soon approaching and “that Trump was sent by heaven to destroy the [Chinese] Communist Party.”
In order to understand, then, how heavily politicized rumors from an obscure far-right cult found their way into the headlines, it is essential to trace the roots of the story through an elaborate network of front groups.
In June 2019, a London-based organization called the China Tribunal published a report claiming that the Chinese government has been systematically executing and harvesting the organs of members of Falun Gong, a leading force of opposition to Beijing in the diaspora.
The China Tribunal describes itself as an “independent tribunal into forced organ harvesting from prisoners of conscience in China.” Most Western journalists took the organization at its word.
Up to and after it published the report, the China Tribunal received scattered coverage from various mainstream media outlets, including the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, and The Guardian. In September, the coverage ramped up considerably after the China Tribunal presented its case to the UN Human Rights Council, with major outlets like The Independent and Reuters joining in.
One thing all this reporting has in common is that it assumes the China Tribunal is truly “independent.” On its website, the China Tribunal says that it was “initiated by the International Coalition to End Transplant Abuse in China (ETAC), an international not for profit organisation, with headquarters in Australia and National Committees in the UK, USA, Canada, New Zealand and Australia.”
So what is ETAC, really?
On ETAC’s website, one finds a “management” page with a list of people, devoid of any information except their names, photographs, and positions in the organization. The executive director and co-founder is Susie Hughes; Margo MacVicar is named as the New Zealand national manager; Rebecca James is the UK national manager for outreach, and so on.
Where do these figures come from, and what brought them together? The website has no bios. But follow the names, and it soon becomes apparent that there is another connection apart from ETAC — the Epoch Times.
A far-right anti-China propaganda network run by a cult
The Epoch Times, which uses the slogan “Truth and Tradition,” has marketed itself as just another conservative, pro-Trump media outlet.
But NBC News published a major exposé in August revealing it to be the media arm of the opposition cult Falun Gong. The report details the bizarre workings of the Falun Gong organization, showing how the Epoch Times is carving a place for itself in American right-wing media.
NBC News found that the Falun Gong website spent more than $1.5 million on roughly 11,000 pro-Trump advertisements on Facebook in just six months, “more than any organization outside of the Trump campaign itself, and more than most Democratic presidential candidates have spent on their own campaigns.”
And while the NBC reporters, Brandy Zadrozny and Ben Collins, cautiously refer to Falun Gong as a “spiritual community,” the behavior they document very easily fits into the popular definition of “cult.” (It’s okay, Zadrozny and Collins, you can say it — say it with me: “Falun Gong is a cult.” Now doesn’t that feel better?)
A quick look at Falun Gong’s official emblem, posted on its website, should raise some eyebrows: it features an ancient swastika symbol. Falun Gong reassures skeptics on the web page, “Some people say: ‘This symbol looks like Hitler’s stuff.’ Let me tell you that this symbol itself does not connote any concepts of class.”
So where do the ETAC managers fit in with Falun Gong? Susie Hughes has photographer credits on several Epoch Times articles (her name seems to have been scrubbed, the photos merely credited to “The Epoch Times,” but the credit still shows up on Google searches at the time of writing). Margo MacVicar has numerous articles gushing about Shen Yun, Falun Gong’s traveling dance show. Rebecca “Becky” James shows up organizing a Falun Gong art exhibition in Bristol and sharing vegan drink recipes.
ETAC’s UK national manager for initiatives, Andy Moody, is credited by Epoch Times as a reporter for its sibling NTD, or New Tang Dynasty Television, Falun Gong’s TV arm. (Concerned Canadians have noted that the cult’s propaganda network has received millions of their tax dollars worth of disproportionate funding.)
ETAC’s UK communications coordinator Victoria Ledwidge appears in another Epoch Times article, coming to greet Shen Yun performers in London and, of course, acclaiming the “amazing” performance.
As one goes down the list of ETAC management, these Falun Gong connections spring up for almost everyone. ETAC is very clearly a Falun Gong front group.
Neither ETAC nor China Tribunal discloses these connections, but it hardly takes an intrepid investigative journalist to find them. So why was this level of basic research a step too far for, say, Owen Bowcott at the Guardian, who does little more than transmit ETAC’s talking points?
In fact, Falun Gong itself is actively spreading this “organ harvesting” rumor in major North American cities. The Grayzone’s Ben Norton saw some of the cult’s activists standing in central Toronto next to a giant banner titled “Stop Forced Live Organ Harvesting in China.”
They handed out pamphlets to passers-by declaring that the “Chinese Communist Regime Is Slaughtering Innocents” (using a painting as supposed evidence), while preaching about the “great health benefits” of Falun Gong.
The far-right cult is clearly using these rumors to proselytize and recruit new supporters.
Falun Gong activists are standing in major cities next to these signs, handing out these crazy pamphlets. It's such a transparently absurd propaganda operation.
The fact that mainstream "journalists" are falling for this is pitiful https://t.co/ENVTmSClSJ
— Ben Norton (@BenjaminNorton) September 26, 2019
‘Research’ overseen by a cult that sidelines real doctors
Turning to the China Tribunal’s report itself, it is apparent that, despite the authors’ claim to “have maintained distance and separation from ETAC in order to ensure their independence,” they rely heavily on information curated for them by ETAC.
The introduction, after describing ETAC as “a not-for-profit coalition of lawyers, medical professionals and others”, goes on to state that “ETAC’s main interest has been the alleged suffering of practitioners of ‘Falun Gong’, a group performing meditative exercises and pursuing Truthfulness, Compassion, and Forbearance, but regarded by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) since 1999 as an ‘anti-humanitarian, anti-society and anti-science cult’.”
It is understandable that critics might hesitate to take the PRC’s characterization of Falun Gong at face value. But it is easy to make a fair evaluation of the group’s true character simply by perusing their own publications, where one will learn, for instance, that modern science was invented by aliens as part of a scheme to take over human bodies; or that feminism, environmentalism, and homosexuality are part of Satan’s plan to make us into communists; or that race-mixing severs our connection to the gods.
What Falun Gong means exactly when it preaches the timeless values of “truthfulness, compassion, and forbearance” is beyond this article’s scope. I leave it to the reader to judge how the above doctrines correspond to them.
The report summary goes on to state: “Evidence was submitted by ETAC for the first hearing, amplified by further evidence following the first and second evidence hearings.” So despite framing their investigation as separate and independent of ETAC, the authors admit that they began with evidence fed to them by ETAC.
Their reliance on ETAC is further highlighted later when several doctors are named who expressed skepticism about the Falun Gong organ harvesting narrative. These doctors are listed as “doctors speaking favourably of the PRC.”
The report then states:
“All of these doctors were invited by the Tribunal to participate in the Tribunal’s proceedings. Their participation would have greatly assisted the Tribunal in its work; they all declined the invitations. Further, although each did contribute in person to a recent report by an Australian Government Committee their contributions have been subject to review by ETAC that reveals that they produced no hard evidence to support what they said and could be criticised for their methodology or their experience in transplant surgery.”
In other words, the China Tribunal didn’t see any need to consider their testimony, because ETAC had already looked at it and declared it to be bogus.
One of these doctors, Francis Delmonico, was contacted by the science journal Nature for its article on the China Tribunal’s report — a rare case of a dissenting opinion being registered, however grudgingly.
Delmonico was asked specifically for his opinion on a research paper cited by the China Tribunal, which was published on the scientific archive, SocArXiv, by Matthew Robinson – a research fellow of the famously impartial Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation:
“But Francis Delmonico, a surgeon at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, says that although there is evidence that organs were taken from prisoners in the past — which he condemns — he is not convinced by the SocArXiv evidence because it is not direct. Delmonico is chair of the World Health Organization’s Task Force on Donation and Transplantation of Human Organs and Tissues and has been supporting organ-donation reform in China for more than a decade, although he made his comments to Nature in a personal capacity.”
Lobbyists for an anti-Iran cult go to bat for an anti-China one
The China Tribunal’s report is not the first alleging that the Chinese government is murdering Falun Gong prisoners en masse to harvest their organs. It relies heavily on an earlier document, known as the Kilgour-Matas report, which was initially released in 2006 and updated several times since then, with the title “Bloody Harvest.”
This previous report was commissioned by the Coalition to Investigate the Persecution of Falun Gong in China. Unlike ETAC, CIPFG plainly states that it is a Falun Gong organization.
More interesting connections arise when probing the backgrounds of the co-authors of the report, David Kilgour and David Matas.
David Matas is the senior legal counsel for B’nai Brith Canada, a right-wing pro-Israel lobby that works hard to tar any critique of the occupation of Palestine as anti-semitism. He was also a member of the Canadian government’s now-defunct Rights and Democracy board, in which capacity he lobbied on behalf of the Iranian opposition cult Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK), as part of an effort to remove the MEK from the Canadian and US lists of terrorist organizations — an effort that was eventually successful.
The Rights and Democracy board’s chairman, Aurel Braun, was also a strident MEK advocate, who promoted the cult as a replacement for Iran’s present government. Rights and Democracy eventually dissolved due in part to Braun’s and Matas’ relentless attacks on another board member for supposed contacts with Hezbollah and Hamas.
The MEK emerged in 1960s Iran, promoting a strange mixture of Marxism and Shia Islam, and supported the 1979 Revolution until the Mullahs turned against it. MeK leadership then fled to Europe, from which they launched a series of terrorist bombings. They simultaneously maintained a presence in Iraq, where they enjoyed Saddam Hussein’s patronage, massacred Kurds on his behalf, and even fought with his troops against their own country.
The MEK promote themselves, to anyone who will listen, as the Iranian opposition and the best democratic alternative to the present government — and politicians and think tanks seeking regime change in Iran readily indulge them, despite wide reports of their cult-like behavior.
In August 2019 Canada’s National Observer published a report about Canadian politicians who love the MEK. Prominently featured in the article is the other co-author of “Bloody Harvest,” David Kilgour, a former MP who is co-chair for “Canadian Friends of a Democratic Iran” and has been doing PR for the MEK for years.
So both authors of “Bloody Harvest” advocate on behalf of, not one, but two cults that also happen to be darlings of regime-change enthusiasts in and around Western governments. (The latest edition of “Bloody Harvest” includes a third co-author, Ethan Gutmann, who, notably, has been affiliated with the Gulf monarchy-funded Brookings Institution and the neoconservative Foundation for Defense of Democracies.)
How does one unwind from all this hard shill work? David Kilgour makes a point of seeing Shen Yun’s dance performances year after year and effusing about it again and again and again to the Epoch Times.
A few reporters notice Falun Gong’s seamy side
In March, Jia Tolentino published her impressions of Shen Yun in the New Yorker. Like the aforementioned NBC piece on the Epoch Times, Tolentino ‘s article shows that more and more people are noticing that there is something very odd about Falun Gong.
From the “baroque and surreal” Shen Yun dance-propaganda show, which bills itself as a last bastion of genuine Chinese culture, she moves to consider some other very troubling aspects of the Falun Gong organization, such as their penchant for resisting journalistic inquiry and harassing critics.
Tolentino also mentions a 2017 Washington Post investigation by Simon Denyer, which, while hardly a pro-PRC puff piece, casts serious doubt on the claims of the Kilgour-Matas report on organ harvesting.
Denyer may be the only journalist in the mainstream US press who conducted an independent investigation on organ harvesting in China and seriously questions Falun Gong’s organ harvesting narrative. Naturally, Ethan Gutmann felt compelled to run a rebuttal to Denyer’s report on ETAC’s website — and one can only imagine the kinds of emails and phone calls Denyer has been getting since he dared to publish that piece.
For most of the Western corporate media, the “Bloody Harvest” horror story is too ghoulishly titillating to subject to serious scrutiny, especially when the “Yellow Peril”-style villain is an increasingly powerful state threatening the old hegemonies.
Additional reporting by The Grayzone’s Ben Norton
Ryan McCarthy is a US-based writer and activist