First Cut Is the Deepest: Organ Harvesting in Xinjiang

Credit: Jules Quartly
Why you need to know

Surgeon Enver Bughda, a native of northwestern China's Xinjiang Uyghur autonomous region, helped harvest organs in 1990s China. Even if he hasn’t moved on, China has, and now claims to operate a purely voluntary donation program.

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Enver Tohti Bughda saw the man’s still-beating heart as he surgically removed the kidneys and liver for an organ transplant. He’s now paying the price, cut off from his family and banished from his home country, fated to recount the story for the rest of his life and atone for his actions.

We meet at a small restaurant in Taipei’s Neihu district, where the food is good and the conversation lively. A small group of activists and poets have gathered to hear the former surgeon tell his gruesome tale, discuss the effects of nuclear radiation on the population of Xinjiang, and the gigantism of mutated rats. It’s not easy listening.

As the 54-year-old speaks he strokes his shaven head, eyes darting around the room and expressive eyebrows arching when he makes a point. Born in Hami, northwestern China’s restive Xinjiang Uyghur autonomous region, Bughda is Uyghur, a Turkic ethnic group.

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Credit: Jules Quartly
Enver Tohti Bughda (center) recounts his story alongside veteran democracy campaigner and rights activist Linda Arrigo (right).

China has been trying to assimilate the predominantly Muslim Uyghurs for decades and since 2009 has conducted a “strike hard” campaign that targets terrorism. Bughda claims that China is trying to wipe out Uyghur culture. He also believes nuclear tests in the region are responsible for high cancer rates among locals, for which he is demanding compensation.

He is a dissident thorn in China’s flesh, as he tours the world to speak out against the Communist Party of China (CCP). “China is shit and kills people for their organs so they can sell them to government leaders, businessmen or rich foreigners. It also poisons its people with nuclear tests,” Bughda says.

“I don’t like communists. The communist system is very good if you want a dictatorship, but if there was a ranking for bad governments then the CCP would be the worst. It doesn’t treat people like humans.”

It wasn’t always thus for Bughda. His parents were prominent CCP officials and one of the few families in the area to have a phone. After completing his medical studies, he became an oncology specialist and surgeon at Urumqi Railway Central Hospital.

Becoming a Party member himself would have been a shoo-in, if he hadn’t missed two meetings to join up. He explains that he was scheduled to work on those days. “I was expected to put the Party before everything, but I didn’t.”

Then came the call, one summer’s day in 1995. He was asked to round up a few assistants and drive to a remote area, which he learned was the execution ground. He heard shots and was told to start work. He saw five men, evidently prisoners because they had shaved heads, lying dead on the ground, their brains blown out.

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Credit: Jules Quartly
A Falun Gong practitioner outside Taipei 101 attempts to convince Chinese visitors their country still harvests organs illegally.

A sixth man with a full head of hair and in civilian clothes had been shot in the right side of the chest and was still alive. “I was a programmed robot and did what I was programmed to do,” recalls Bughda, who removed the liver and kidneys.

“At that time I had no real feelings because I thought of myself as a proud member of a great country and we were disposing of enemies of the state.”

Two years later he left Urumqi to work in a Turkish hospital, which is where he contacted a TV crew from the United Kingdom’s Channel 4 and helped produce the documentary “Death on the Silk Road,” about nuclear pollution in Xinjiang.

He moved to the UK in 1999 and was given asylum two years later. He converted from Islam to Christianity. Sentenced in absentia to 20 years in jail back in China, his life as a dissident, activist and international speaker had begun.

Bughda is the only person in the world outside China who has direct evidence of organ harvesting in the country. As such he has been feted by democracies for his courage in speaking out and testified at hearings on the issue in Europe and the United States.

“I still feel guilty about what I did to the guy who died. I have been to mosques, churches and temples to pray for his forgiveness.” — Enver Tohti Bughda.

Yet, if the Chinese authorities are to be believed, he is talking about something that doesn’t happen anymore. China’s National Organ Donation and Organ Transplant Committee banned organ harvesting from death-row inmates on Jan. 1, 2015. They assert the country now has a civilian organ donation scheme that is much the same as anywhere else in the world.

In the U.S., which leads the world in organ transplants, according to Fortune magazine, a heart costs US$1.4 million, a lung US$862,000 and a liver US$813,000. It’s an incredibly lucrative business. After all, someone who needs an organ as a matter of life and death will pay practically anything for it.

Perhaps this is why Hong Kong’s billionaire Li Ka-shing (李嘉誠) has become involved with the China Organ Transplantation Development (COTD) Foundation, donating 8 million yuan (US$1.2 million) of seed money and in the process lending some kind of legitimacy. It would seem the real story now is which country can become the world’s organ transplant trade leader.

Meanwhile, Bughda works part-time as an Uber driver in London. He isn’t qualified to practice as a surgeon in the UK. Twenty-two years after the fact, he is still telling anyone who will listen about his experience in the killing fields of Urumqi. Asked whether he likes being a dissident instead of a respected doctor in a country that is challenging for global economic supremacy, Bughda is very clear:

“No. No one listens, everyone wants me to leave because I am an embarrassment.” He adds that he has to be careful about who he meets and where he goes because he’s fearful of China’s vengeance.

“I didn’t make a choice to leave for the West. If I had I would have gone to Canada because the climate is similar to Xinjiang.”

“I still feel guilty about what I did to the guy who died. I have been to mosques, churches and temples to pray for his forgiveness,” Bughda says.

His penance is to repeat the story for the rest of his days, even if it is no longer relevant. He was made to break the doctor’s Hippocratic Oath of “do no harm” – but that doesn’t change the fact he did it.

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