Interviewed by: Abdullah Haroon and Vienna Mazzoli

McMaster Chapter

Leon Lee is a Canadian filmmaker and director of the 2014 documentary, Human Harvest. This film follows David Kilgour and David Matas, two Canadian Nobel Peace Prize nominees, throughout their investigation of forced organ harvesting occurring in state-run hospitals in China. Tens of thousands prisoners of conscience, the most frequent victims of this practice, have been killed. Prisoners of conscience are people who have been imprisoned because their religious or political views are condemned by their government. The award winning film, Human Harvest, has been a successful in bringing these crimes to light and inciting further action to be taken to put an end to this practice.

Are you in the process of creating new films as well?

Leon: Well, since Human Harvest, I’ve made a few more films and the latest one is “Letters from Masanjia” and we actually just recently qualified for a 2019 Oscar in the best documentary feature category, and this film has also won over a dozen awards in festivals worldwide. It’s about a woman in Oregon who discovered an SOS note in a package of Halloween decorations. The letter was from Masanjia labour camp, one of the most notorious labour camps in China. That was the story. How he ended up in a labour camp, how he was able to write the note under the watchful eyes of the guard. So, it was not on organ harvesting in particular, but it was broadly about human rights situations in China.

So, more focused on labour practices?

Leon: Certainly about the forced labour in China, but also about spiritual persecutions in China. So these kinds of persecutions provided an environment where forced organ harvesting would take place. Because of the state persecution policy, and because of the nationwide propaganda and demonization, and the medical doctors and law enforcement agencies involved in organ harvesting, they don’t really treat the victims as human beings…So that’s why if we raise awareness on human rights issues in general, that would also help in stopping the organ harvesting practice.

That’s very true. So, Human Harvest was specifically focused on organ harvesting in China, but do you know of other countries with similar practices or where organ harvesting is not well regulated?

Leon: Organ trafficking probably exists in many countries, in many forms. What differs in China is that it was a state sanctioned practice. It was nationwide, it was carried out by both military and civilian hospitals, and the victims are in the hundreds and  thousands. There are illegal organ trades in other parts of the world of course, India, Pakistan, East European countries, and also ISIS at one point was also doing a lot of illegal organ harvesting. All of them really paled in comparison to China.

So, you’re saying that in China the government and the military itself is profiting from this illegal trade?

Leon: Absolutely. Both the doctors involved and the hospitals in question and the law enforcement officials. Everyone in this chain was benefiting from this lucrative trade.

So, in a sense it’s a massive form of corruption.

Leon: Yes, yes. They wanted to get rid of these prisoners of conscience and in the meantime, they can make money out of it. So, why not.

So, currently what would you say is the biggest factor behind organ harvesting, and how could governments stop it?

Leon: It’s hard to rank the factors because, you know, just like as human beings you need water, you need air, you need food. What is the most important factor? Well, it’s hard to say. Ultimately, you need all three to survive. So, in the practice of organ harvesting in China, there are a few things. One, there is this policy in China that these prisoners of conscience are being persecuted so, they were able to take their organs. If they were not in custody, and not being persecuted then this probably wouldn’t happen. Two, in the entire Chinese political system there is no basic freedom, there is no freedom of speech, or freedom of press. So, the government essentially is able to do whatever they want to do. So, once we know this is happening, there’s not much people can do about it unless you’re in the US and Canada, you can go report it to the police and it goes to court. But there’s essentially no recourse you can take in China. Three, there is also this demand. Initially, mostly from international transplant tourists, and later also from domestic patients that there is a huge gap between the demand and supply. People were desperately waiting for organs which also contributed to the practice. As to what governments can do – actually quite a lot. You know, at least what people can do is to have legislation in place banning their own citizens from going to China for organ transplantation. That will hopefully help with the demand side. But also, many, many governments, in my opinion, are turning a blind eye because they knew how terrible the situation is and they knew if they talked about it, they’d have to do something about it. So, in fear of, you know, jeopardizing trade, most governments, in my opinion, are keeping silent. What they ought to do is not to keep silent, is to openly raise these questions. An the minimum, calling China to open up, so people can send independent investigators to investigate. Yeah, I’m aware that some governments do possess very solid evidence. If they do, time to declassify them to know what is really going on. For China, this isn’t something they have to do. For the Chinese Communist Party, staying in power is what they have to do. So, if many governments oppose the practice and make it clear that they are determined to see this practice end to a point that this may have negative impact on their legitimacy and for the Chinese regime to maintain power.

So the world together kind of has to denounce the practice. The countries have to become a little more brave in speaking against it, right?

Leon: Exactly, because here’s the thing – countries have so called dialogues with China about human rights. They’re mostly closed door meetings. You will raise the question, the Chinese party will just listen and then end of the meeting, nothing happens. The Chinese Regime knows whether you just want to talk about it or whether you actually mean it. So, if all these governments actually stand up and mean it, we can see some dramatic changes in a very short period of time.

And the change will probably have to come from within, from the government itself and the country itself?

Leon: Well, I think the people play a very important role here. It is up to the people that their government knows this is something they sincerely care about and once there is the public support I think there will be the political will to make it happen.

Would you say that poverty plays a role in much of this?

Leon: That’s certainly something that’s happening in some parts of the world, but in forced organ harvesting in China, this is not the issue. These people are killed for their organs against their will.

And this forced organ harvesting, do you also see this happening in neighbouring countries such as India and Pakistan?

Leon: No. In those countries, as far as I know, it’s mostly the situation you mentioned – people are selling their organs out of poverty and possibly in some cases they’re organized in criminal groups who are illegally harvesting organs. So, they are not backed by a government, and the severity of the situation is not comparable to China.

And when you say severity do you mean by the numbers?

Leon: Both by the numbers and in terms of the nature of the crime, you know. When the crime is perpetrated by the regime. It’s a whole new different ballgame than if it was perpetrated by a mafia group, you know.

Yes, that’s true because it looks like it’s a state sanctioned thing and a lot of people are in on it. We were wondering how university students can help with this issue of organ harvesting.

Leon: There are very complex issues in the world nowadays and by the look of it, it’s hard to come up with any feasible solutions. But at the end of the day, I truly believe that awareness is the key to the vast majority of the problems we face. Even as undergraduate students I think raising awareness is still the key, by telling your classmates, your friends, your family, or also some media. Tell people what you learned. You know, if you have time, write to your senators and MPs. Tell them this is something you learned and deeply care about. You’d be surprised to know it doesn’t take many letters to really bring something to the attention of people in power. Once they are aware of it, chances are something can be done. These are all very tangible things one can do.

Right, so this wraps up our interview. Is there anything else you’d like to tell us today?

Leon: No, thank you for the opportunity and I hope people will take some form of action. It’s hard to believe in the world nowadays, after we’ve experienced so many atrocities and we’ve told ourselves never again, never again, that there’s still this kind of crime against humanity that’s still happening.

Even in this modern age we still have a lot that needs to be improved.

Leon: Yes. So, there’s no bystander in this, everybody has to take a stand.

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Leon Lee is a Canadian filmmaker and director of the 2014 documentary, Human Harvest. This film follows David Kilgour and David Matas, two Canadian Nobel Peace Prize nominees, throughout their investigation of forced organ harvesting occurring in state-run hospitals in China. Tens of thousands prisoners of conscience, the most frequent victims of this practice, have been killed. Prisoners of conscience are people who have been imprisoned because their religious or political views are condemned by their government. The award winning film, Human Harvest, has been a successful in bringing these crimes to light and inciting further action to be taken to put an end to this practice.

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