by M. Bob Kao
DR. KO WEN-JE ran a generally clean and honourable campaign that resulted in his defeating Sean Lien in the November 29 election to be the first non-KMT mayor of Taipei in 16 years. Nonetheless, there was one major issue that arose during his campaign that he needs to address in order to start off his administration on the right foot. Namely, what role did he play, if any, in helping Taiwanese patients obtain organ transplants harvested from Chinese Falun Gong prisoners?
The controversy started in October of this year when KMT legislator Lo Shu-lei accused Dr. Ko of facilitating the procurement of organs from China for his Taiwanese patients and implied he made profits from these transactions. Some reports in the local media called him an “organ broker” while others merely repeated the claim that he was “involved” (介入) in these dealings. The basis of this accusation was a chapter in Ethan Gutmann’s book The Slaughter: Mass Killings, Organ Harvesting, and China’s Secret Solution to Its Dissident Problem.
Ko Wen-Je denying accusations of organ trafficking at a press conference on October 28th. Photo credit: Liu Hsin-de/Taipei Times
Dr. Ko immediately denied the allegations and dismissed this as another smear tactic. He disclaimed all involvement and questioned the accuracy of Mr. Gutmann’s portrayal. Mr. Gutmann readily rejected the notion that he called Dr. Ko an organ broker in the book and blamed this misunderstanding on language translation and cultural issues. In a follow-up letter dated November 25, Mr. Gutmann’s lawyer asserted, among other things:
“No English-speaking reader to date has understood for one moment that Dr. Ko was acting as an ‘organ broker’.
“No English-speaking reader to date believes that Dr. Ko was trying to purchase organs himself or was in any way involved in any sort of profit-making venture.”
Setting aside the use of the type of unequivocal language a lawyer typically eschews for good reason, what was notable was the missing content. The letter did not deny the veracity of the claims or characterizations in the book, nor did it offer any retractions. This effectively confirms the passages in the book that, in the very least, placed Dr. Ko in China having conversations about finding organs for his patients.
Assuming the definition of a broker being used is one that is along the lines of an intermediary who facilitates the transaction between the buyer and the seller for a fee or commission, then it is true that Mr. Gutmann did not call Dr. Ko an organ broker, as the book never claimed he received any financial compensation for his efforts. Nevertheless, the text clearly stated that Dr. Ko had some kind of involvement, including making appointments for his patients:
“Even as he set up appointments for his patients on the mainland, Dr. Ko kept thinking that there must be a way to rationalize the system, to apply some oversight, some sort of technical fix. Now that the mainland doctors had blood on their hands there was no obvious path to medical reform.” (257)
Mr. Gutmann also claimed Dr. Ko arranged for the transplants:
“Dr. Ko faced a genuinely vexing moral dilemma. His patients would die without the transplants he had arranged, and there was little to be gained by informing his patients of the source of the organs.” (260)
That the book made Dr. Ko out to play the role of an intermediary of some sort is indisputable. Whatever role it was, it should be noted, Dr. Ko was deeply troubled by it. In fact, Mr. Gutmann emphasized throughout the chapter that Dr. Ko was doing this selflessly to help his patients who had no other choice because they were waiting too long for organs to be available in Taiwan. He had good intentions and engaged in conversations in China to establish a national organ database but was ultimately unsuccessful. The letter repeated this sentiment when it stated Dr. Ko “has acted honourably” and “has contributed significantly to the international effort to expose the medical crimes which continue to be perpetrated in China.”
Nevertheless, by not retracting any of the text, it is reasonable to assume that Gutmann stands by his description of Ko’s actions:
“Dr. Ko went to China and meticulously worked through the checklist of intimacy with his medical colleagues: The go-to-hell banquet. The karaoke bar. The cognac followed by the Mao-Tai. The subtle flattery and the jokes about his accent. And when the ritual was truly finished, and everyone had sobered up, the Chinese surgeons summoned him.
“You are one of us. You are a brother. So we will give you the family price. But we are going to do more for you than that. We noted your worries and concerns about organ quality. And we trust your discretion. So you will have no worries for your patients. They will receive nothing but the best: all the organs will come from Falun Gong.
“And Dr. Ko smiled and thanked them politely, and the process began.” (256)
During his campaign, Dr. Ko explicitly refuted this passage by claiming that he never went to a banquet or sang karaoke with Chinese doctors and that Mr. Gutmann was describing another doctor’s experience.
All in all, contrary to what Dr. Ko’s campaign tried to portray by publicly releasing it, the letter did not absolve him of all responsibility or prove that calling Dr. Ko an organ broker was a completely baseless accusation inflamed by the media. In fact, the letter confirmed Mr. Gutmann’s original assertion that Dr. Ko was involved in obtaining organs for his patients. Perhaps the media using the term “broker” was incorrect but alleging he was involved in some capacity was perfectly reasonable given Mr. Gutmann’s own words.
So what really happened? Was Mr. Gutmann’s portrayal accurate, meaning Dr. Ko was an intermediary without pay and therefore was involved, however altruistic his intentions? Or was the whole chapter a manifestation of Mr. Gutmann’s imagination, as Dr. Ko implied by his categorical denials?
If Dr. Ko were to admit to the former, most Taiwanese people would probably be quite understanding given the way he has conducted himself in the public eye in recent years and would not blame him for his desire to do his best to help his patients. If the latter were the case, Dr. Ko should prepare to litigate against Mr. Gutmann and his publisher to clear his name. Or the truth may be somewhere in between, but only Dr. Ko can offer the clarification that will put this issue to rest. There is no downside in telling the truth here, but given their contradictory public positions, Dr. Ko should not pretend that he and Mr. Gutmann are in agreement.
For the sake of a clean, independent, and transparent tenure as mayor of Taipei that transcends partisanship, Dr. Ko must directly address this issue forthwith.