Body exhibits attract crowds and cash, but are the cadavers on display actually murdered Chinese citizens?
A look inside the gruesome reality of the body show industry.
Body exhibits attract crowds and cash, but are the cadavers on display actually murdered Chinese citizens?
Imagine reuniting with your beloved by seeing them dead, preserved, and posed for $25 per ticket. Reunion is a fictional short film, but the reality behind it has sparked worldwide backlash and cries for police investigations.
Since mid-2017, the Czech Republic has been roiled in controversy over one such corpse show. In the latest turn of events in August, Czech Republic’s government found Bodies The Exhibition in violation of a local Prague law which states any dead body within city limits must be buried without delay, and recommended the preserved bodies be buried at once. The ministry expressed concern that the cadavers may violate human rights and felt unanimously that they violate human dignity. At the same time, Czech Parliament amended the law in such a way that makes it impossible for body shows to open their doors there again. A similar chain of events is beginning in the Slovak Republic, the show’s next stop on tour.
During this time, to add pressure, New Yorker Huang Wanqing has filed a complaint with Czech Republic police to help him conduct DNA testing on “plasticized” (silicone-preserved) cadavers on display. He thinks one of the bodies might be his brother. Huang hasn’t seen or heard from his sibling since 2003 and believes he was executed in a Chinese prison, then his body sold to an unwitting bodies show because, before his death, his brother was severely persecuted by Chinese authorities for practicing Falun Gong, a traditional method of meditation which has been violently banned in China since 1999. He is still awaiting a response from the Czech authorities.
Hear Huang’s plea in his video statement for Human Rights Without Borders
“In order to uncover the truth about my brother’s disappearance 14 years ago, I will never give up, even if there’s only a glimpse of hope” – Huang Wanqing
His plea is not the first of its kind. People around the world have made it clear that cadavers sourced from China’s grim human rights-scape are dubious and unwelcome. And that’s where almost all bodies in these exhibitions come from.
At a 300-person protest in Niagara, Ontario in 2015, human rights group Choose Humanity demanded proof as to whether or not the bodies on display were Chinese-Canadians’ family members who went missing in China because of their spiritual and political beliefs.
Watch NTD’s coverage of the protest in Canada.
Choose Humanity cited a 2016 independent investigation which concluded that, in the course of 16 years, as many as 1.5 million transplant operations in China were the result of Chinese military surgeons killing Falun Gong practitioners and other dissidents who refuse to renounce their beliefs. Selling those fresh corpses to plastination factories is a logical alternative or next step, protesters, lawyers and investigators agree. Read more about the persecution of groups like Falun Gong and China’s illegal organ trade here.
In 2008, a lawsuit was brought against a US body show organizer for these very reasons. New York’s Attorney General Andrew Cuomo forced the company to display a disclaimer alerting the public to those concerns, refund those who would not have attended had they known about the corpses’ murky origins and released this scathing statement against them:
“The grim reality is that Premier Exhibitions has profited from displaying the remains of individuals who may have been tortured and executed in China. Despite repeated denials, we now know that Premier itself cannot demonstrate the circumstances that led to the death of the individuals. Nor is Premier able to establish that these people consented to their remains being used in this manner.”
The disclaimer is still on their website today and “amounts to an admission of guilt” according to Ontario Member of Parliament Jack MacLaren.
Source: Premier Exhibitions website
So what more should the world expect of body show organizers? Plenty. DNA testing and other forms of forensic investigation would have answered the Niagara residents’ questions, they say. But Premier and their mute charges slipped through the burgeoning industry’s wide legal loopholes and out of Canada before an investigation could take place.
“These exhibits must be scrutinized by our government before we allow them in, otherwise we may be aiding in terrible crimes against humanity.” – Joel Chipkar, Choose Humanity
As these shows continue to tour and rake in hundreds of millions of dollars each year, those are the chilling facts that most visitors to body exhibitions aren’t aware of. With the film Reunion, we hope to change that and to encourage the international community to investigate these shows’ cadaver sources.
So why are experts convinced that the bodies of murdered Falun Gong practitioners and other Chinese dissidents are being used in the exhibits?
These 10 pieces of evidence will leave you chilled to the bone:
1. Owners Refuse Investigations
“The burden of proof must fall on the commercial exhibitors who are profiting from these shows.” – Sharon Hom, executive director of Human Rights in China
The likelihood that many cadavers in the shows came from Chinese prisoners of conscience may be why even the body exhibition company whose hands appear the cleanest refuses to allow a forensic investigation of its specimens. German-based “Body Worlds” is owned by the inventor of plastination, Gunther Von Hagens. Analyst Ethan Gutmann pointed out that a forensic investigation, once complete, would exonerate the supposedly innocent company and improve its image. Gutmann’s suggestion came in the same article that states some of the bodies in Van Hagens’ Vienna exhibition seemed to have Asiatic features even though a poster near the door claimed all bodies came from Caucasian donors. In the last few years, Von Hagens has invited the curious and the sympathetic to donate their flesh and bone to his travelling show. He claims to have a list of thousands now. But demand for plasticized cadavers from medical universities and the public outpaces the rate at which these donors are dying, leaving a sizeable gap in supply.
Huang Wangqing is one of thousands of grieving relatives willing to give a swab of their DNA in the hope of finding closure and vindication. They all understand what a long-shot it would be to find a match, but such an investigation would be a crucial concession on the part of the cadaver show industry, and, as Gutmann pointed out, absolve the industry in family members’ eyes.
Afterall, people of Chinese descent have especially strong beliefs about death and dying.
2. Cadaver Displays Conflict with Chinese Beliefs
Many people assume that the bodies were donated to science by Chinese relatives of the deceased. But California Assembly Member and Chinese-American Fiona Ma says that’s not likely.
“[Chinese people] believe in full-body burials. They don’t believe in organ donations, and some people don’t even believe in giving blood. So, automatically, I thought that something was wrong with the show,” Assembly Member Ma told the LA Times while sponsoring a bill to ban such shows in California.
In addition, there is virtually no messaging in China that encourages citizens to donate the bodies of their loved ones to science or medicine.
3. “Unclaimed”? Unconvincing.
Some shows, including Premier’s off-shoot exhibitions, use terms like “unclaimed” bodies to explain their provenance, but scratch beneath the surface of that word and even more alarming questions appear.
Unclaimed bodies, according to China’s definition, are from people who died of natural or accidental deaths and whose relatives could not be found or didn’t have the means to properly bury them.
But for a body to qualify as unclaimed in China, it must remain available, embalmed, for 30 days after death. However, the plastination process must start no later than 48 hours after death and cannot be performed on embalmed corpses, making the use of “unclaimed” cadavers nearly obsolete.
ABC News aired an investigative report that included a visit to Premier’s plastination factory in Dalian, China. What they found shocked them and forced Arnie Geller, Premier’s CEO, to express grave concern.
Watch ABC News 20/20 investigation into the source of the bodies.
4. Too Good To Be True
Anatomists in the US and Europe have raised another issue when examining the bodies in the exhibits: Almost all are young or middle-aged people who show no signs of terminal or degenerative illnesses nor trauma. So — they’ve wondered aloud to reporters — what were their causes of death?
Nevermind, some event managers say, since they have in hand the consent forms that demonstrate willingness to be plastinated.
Which uncovers another problem. A witness from China has offered important testimony that mars Chinese records of consent.
5. Forcing their Hands
In 2006, a former military surgeon confessed to processing thousands of forged papers of consent. Consent of what? Organ donation. The greater crime that his confession confirmed was that thousands of people were being killed for their organs in China. His testimony clarified one part of how China is getting away with it.
In investigation after investigation, China’s practice of executing of political prisoners to sell their organs is a well-documented crime against humanity and is a likely a first-step before corpses reach a plastination factory where technicians can use the common practice of assembling plastinated displays from multiple dead bodies. The former surgeon’s testimony regarding forgery demonstrates how well-established and widespread the practice of falsified consent papers is, which is an important piece of the whole picture that bodies exhibitors refuse to acknowledge: their consent papers are likely forged documents, too. After all, these “donors” can no longer be consulted.
6. Main Ingredient: Murder
But evidence of forged records and genocidal cover-up come as no surprise. Years ago, the United Nations and human rights lawyers issued grave warnings about the inherent dangers of allowing body exhibitions to operate.
“When you can make money with human bodies, there will always be someone who will be there to profit off of them,” “Maybe to kill someone, maybe sentence someone to death, or maybe to deny medical care in order to be able to sell the body.” – French lawyer Richard Sedillot.
Sedillot won the court case in France to shut down one body show, and hopes the rest of the world will do the same because of the high likelihood that corpse exhibitions bring harm to the vulnerable.
Testimony of having forged thousands of consent papers confirms the human rights community’s worst fears. But the story doesn’t end there.
7. Murder for Profit Not New in China
The Chinese Communist Party’s criminal behaviour is well-known and has been corroborated by eyewitness testimony, official records, human rights investigations, archival photos and videos, and more. Its history of wanton tyranny makes it highly logical that China is cashing in twice by killing prisoners of conscience: profiting once from their organs and again when selling body parts and cadavers to plastination companies.
“The Chinese government actively condone—indeed, are involved in—the murder of potentially thousands of their own citizens every year for the purpose of forcibly extracting vital organs, most notably practitioners of Falun Gong.” – Fiona Bruce, British Member of Parliament
Forced organ harvesting has been the focus of investigation by a small army of researchers and analysts who, since 2006, have amassed volumes of evidence that implicate the Chinese regime as masterminds of a genocidal practice: robbing Falun Gong practitioners of their vital organs and selling them to desperate, unwitting foreigners at enormous profit. For a more indepth look at forced organ harvesting and how we know it’s going on, click here. At the Body Worlds show in Vienna, Gutmann observed that some specimens were missing livers and kidneys, prompting him to ask if that was “a sign of dual-purpose corpses?”
8. Laws Lag Behind
Body show companies can operate easily and profitably without ever having to answer the hard questions because of a lack of regulatory oversight. Western nations’ status quo of allotting stringent anonymity to the deceased isn’t helping matters. To top it off, the term “plastic models” is an accepted term at border crossings to describe these silicon-filled human remains — a legal caveat that lawyers worldwide would like to see changed.
That’s why we made the film Reunion, to urge people, including politicians the world over, to close the loopholes that these companies operate in, so that first and foremost the vulnerable are protected. Because plasticised human remains are difficult to match with identities, it may be best that body exhibitions disappear altogether in the future. The risks are just too great.
9. Location, Location
Nobel Peace Prize-nominated author Ethan Gutmann observed that four conditions appeared at the same time in and around Dalian in 1999 that made the area fertile enough that organ harvesting and plastination could thrive:
“A supply of fresh bodies from nearby labour camps, international sales, a sympathetic provincial Public Security Bureau, and established lines of communication between prison executioners and plastination factories.”
Gutmann estimated that a single corpse could fetch up to $400,000 USD through organ harvesting and plastination combined.
The map below illustrates the short drive (at most five hours) between at least 11 places where political prisoners are held and the body plastination factories in Dalian, China.
10. Sketchy from the Start
Ever since it became the world hot spot of plastination, Dalian, China’s political events have played out more dramatically than a crime thriller. Secretive corporate betrayals, backstabbing, murder, all-night confessions in international embassies, genocide, extortion… Hollywood, eat your heart out.
Timeline: A history of the plasticination industry from its shady beginnings until now.
1977 to 1994 German anatomist Gunther von Hagens develops a method to replace human tissue with coloured liquid plastics which preserves human remains indefinitely. His first factory is located in Kyrgyzstan and draws criticism for using bodies of the homeless and criminally insane, which he denies. He begins sales of plastinated bodies to universities and medical centres around the world.
1995 Von Hagens embarks on an international tour with a collection of posed and plasticized bodies, his first “Body Worlds” show.
1999 Von Hagens opens the largest body factory to date in Dalian, China, in August at the recommendation of his Chinese protégé Sui Hongjin. It is personally approved by the city’s mayor, Bo Xilai. The same year, the mass campaign to eradicate Falun Gong begins. Awards and personal relationships between Von Hagens, Hongjin and Bo soon follow.
2001 Bo Xilai becomes Party Secretary of Liaoning province and begins expanding and building large-scale facilities to house Falun Gong prisoners, including the infamous Masanjia Labor Camp. In particular, Bo takes in and deals with Falun Gong practitioners who were arrested in Beijing but who refused to disclose their names. Lethal injection becomes the province-wide execution method instead of gunshot, the first province to do so.
2001 According to a source for The Epoch Times, Bo’s wife, Gu Kailai, and English businessman Neil Heywood begin setting up the system of harvesting organs from political prisoners and selling them to unknowing transplant patients from around the world.
2002 Sui Hongjin secretly establishes his own plastination factory. When Von Hagens finds out, he throws him out of the company and a fierce rivalry is sparked a that continues to this day.
2004 German magazine Der Spiegel publishes an exposé on Von Hagens and “Body Worlds,” detailing shadowy financial dealings and email exchanges that expose chilling and damning details of “fresh corpses” in Dalian such as this one: “An incident that took place in the morning hours of December 29, 2001 in Dalian: Just at the height of a state cleansing wave against alleged ‘criminals’, Gunther von Hagens reaches a password-protected email document, the receipt of ‘two fresh copies, of the highest quality’, which arrived in the company in the morning with bullet holes in their heads. ‘So fresh’ are the bodies, that the livers of the two dead were ‘clinically transplanted’ only a few hours before.”
2004 In response to the Der Spiegel article, Von Hagens publicly offers to look through his collection of over 600 dead bodies for evidence of execution. He returns seven corpses to China that have bullet holes in their heads. In a public statement published by The Guardian, Von Hagens says “I can’t prove the bodies weren’t executed, but I believe they weren’t,” also admitting he received the bodies from Chinese officials but could not be sure of their origins.
2008 A former employee of Sui Hongjin’s factory shows ABC’s 20/20 photos of newly executed prisoners in alleyways that he was instructed to pick up for Sui’s plastination factory. ABC also captures a tearful Von Hagens stating that he can no longer do business with China due to the possibility bodies there are from executed prisoners.
2009 The whistleblower, who turned out to be a then-employee of Von Hagens, retracts his previous statement and photos, saying Von Hagens put him up to it to discredit Sui Hongjin. Nonetheless, New York’s Attorney General orders the US event company that exhibits Hongjin’s prepared corpses, “Bodies… The Exhibition,” to add a scathing disclaimer to their show and website and to refund visitors who wrongly believed the bodies were donated.
2011 British businessman Neil Heywood is found dead and Gu Kailai, Bo Xilai’s wife, is arrested for murder. The plastination factory she’s associated with is shuttered within 48 hours of her arrest. Months later, she’s found guilty and sentenced to death. The trial lasts for only 7 hours and observers note gaping holes in the official story which is that Gu felt she needed to murder Heywood to protect her son. However, according to the Epoch Times source, Gu murdered Heywood because he had begun to talk about their dealings involving executed Falun Gong prisoners in Dalian. Analysts point out that Gu likely traded silence on the subject for a suspension of the death penalty.
2012 One night, Wang LiJun, Bo Xilai’s right hand man, dramatically enters the US Embassy in Beijing and spends 30 hours there. Bo has the police surround the building while Wang tries to negotiate his way safely to the US. It’s widely believed Wang disclosed secrets about Bo and Gu’s organ harvesting and body trafficking during his attempt to negotiate asylum. In the end, Wang is handed back to Beijing’s authorities.
2013 Bo is brought to trial after being held in jail for more than a year on charges of corruption, accepting bribes, abuse of power, and “bending the law for selfish ends.” Crimes that would indict the entire communist party — organ harvesting, persecution, genocide — are kept off the ledger.
Today, Sui Hongjin continues to oversee plastination factories in Liaoning Province and sell preserved corpses to shows and educational facilities around the world.
Now, Von Hagens claims that all corpses in his show are from Caucasian donors. His plastination factory is on the Polish-German border but he’s been linked to a factory in China that processes dead animals.
In the end, this isn’t a story about what we explicitly know, it’s about what high-profit body shows don’t seem to want to know, and what they’re not doing to protect vulnerable people who are already exploited in the country where corpses are mainly sourced: China.
We hope you’ll add your voice to the cause and help halt these shows until a full, international investigation can take place. Together we can put our film’s titular moment and Huang’s search for his brother firmly back into the realm of fiction, where they belong.
What Still Needs to be Done
to Stop This Crime?
Investigate the cadavers and China’s plastination industry. Gutmann asserts that event companies such as Premier Exhibitions could ultimately be considered accessories to a crime against humanity. But by cooperating in a forensic investigation, “they might mitigate their involvement in the eyes of the world and, most important, in the eyes of the Chinese people.”
Ban body shows altogether. Their risk to human life does not outweigh what educational value they may hold.