Falun Gong, Griffith Uni’s Fraser at odds over organs

A spiritual leader’s criticism of a Griffith University academic in a parliamentary hearing was one of the few public skirmishes in a hard-fought battle behind the scenes, now set to culminate in an official misconduct hearing at the university next month.

Testifying in the federal parliament’s Inquiry into Human Organ Trafficking and Organ Transplant Tourism in June, John Deller, secretary of the Falun Dafa (also known as Falun Gong) Association of Australia, seemed to suggest that Falun Gong had formally complained about Griffith academic Campbell Fraser, first by criticising Fraser and then seeking to table correspondence Falun Gong had with Griffith’s senior deputy vice-chancellor Ned Pankhurst.

Falun Gong, according to its Sydney branch website, is “a self-improvement practice that improves mental and physical wellness”. Banned in China, the spiritual movement has reportedly attracted hundreds of thousands of followers worldwide, and leaders claim that China persecutes and jails Falun Gong supporters and harvests their organs and the organs of other prisoners of conscience and uses them for transplants

Fraser, a senior lecturer in Griffith’s department of international business and Asian studies, had a kidney transplant in the early 2000s. Since then he has studied organ trafficking, attended conferences, interviewed organ recipients and donors, and written scholarly papers on organ trafficking and organ tourism, as well as visiting China.

China banned the use of executed prisoners’ organs in 2015 and has apparently set up a nationwide voluntary donation system instead. But there are fears the practice continues, if only sporadically, with prisoners reclassified as voluntary donors to get around the rules.

Testifying in the parliamentary hearing, Fraser said China had made progress in the contentious field of transplants and the organs of executed prisoners were no longer routinely harvested for transplantation. “We are by no means saying that there’s not a problem in China — not at all,” he testified. “What we are saying is that compared with where we were three or four years ago, we’re now in a totally different realm.

“We now have in China a group of champions — doctors, particularly surgeons, and some government administrators — who we believe genuinely want change to happen in China.”

Wendy Rogers, a medical ethicist from Macquarie University, also testified in the parliamentary inquiry hearing, saying she thought forced organ harvesting continued in China.

“In summary, we believe that forced organ harvesting from vulnerable victims is ongoing in China, and that Australians travelling to China for transplants risk obtaining an organ which has been sourced illegally and unethically,” she told the hearing.

She added that Fraser had interviewed 11 (Falun Gong) witnesses in Sydney, and, quoting another woman, added that he had said one witness’s story was “obviously authentic”. However, Fraser strongly denies this; he says the witnesses’ testimony was not credible and in fact sounded rehearsed, and as a result he destroyed his notes on the interviews.

This 2016 incident is connected to the complaint about Fraser that Griffith University is investigating, which deals, at least in part, with the university’s longstanding ethical approval for his research into organ trafficking.

More recently, Rogers told The Australian that Falun Gong was “mainly a meditation, self-reflection and self-improvement practice”.

She was an atheist, she added, and “had no skin in the game”. Rogers was also reportedly behind the retraction of a paper on liver transplants in the academic journal Liver International last year, reportedly telling the editor it was inconceivable a hospital could have obtained more than 500 usable livers in a four-year period, as the paper said, given the shortage of donors. This retraction followed the amendment of another journal paper.

Opinions vary on the Falun Gong claims, and Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade remains sceptical about the allegations of forced organ harvesting. Testifying in the parliamentary hearing, DFAT’s first assistant secretary, North Asia division, Graham Fletcher, said China was gradually building a voluntary organ donation scheme and had banned organ tourism in 2009. With regards to Falun Gong and claims of systematic organ harvesting, he said: “We don’t believe there is credible evidence of that activity occurring.”

Contacted for comment, Fraser says he also doubts that forced organ harvesting continues in any systematic way in China — an opinion that has brought him into conflict with supporters of Falun Gong.

Contrary to his critics’ assertions, he also says he is far from being an apologist for China.

“The more we engage with China, the harder it will be for them to go back to the old way of relying on executed prisoner organs,” he says. “Even though we couldn’t find any evidence of mass extermination camps where people are murdered for their organs, we are concerned that if organs from executed prisoners are being used, then, even if unintentionally, it does provide an incentive to continue with the death penalty.”

He concedes he was invited to China, along with representatives of the World Health Organisation and the Vatican-based Pontifical Academy of Sciences, and that China paid for travel and accommodation, and invited the delegation to various meetings and sites. However, he strongly denies that he is “in China’s pocket”, as his critics claim.

Now banned by Griffith University from travelling abroad or talking to the media, he says he is about to undergo his third misconduct investigation (he was cleared in the first two).

To begin with, he says, Griffith was enthusiastic about his research and senior academics sent him emails of support and tweeted their enthusiasm. However, that has changed with Falun Gong complaints.

Griffith sent a statement in response to queries on the matter: “Any concerns raised about academics are taken seriously and investigated appropriately,” according to a spokesman.

“The university is part-way through a formal investigation. It does not comment publicly on ­ongoing investigations which may result in disciplinary proceedings, or correspondence with complainants.

“We support the right of our academics to talk publicly on their area of expertise.

“Falun Gong is outside of Dr Fraser’s area of academic expertise. The university would not support any commentary from an academic that is unsubstantiated or potentially defamatory to another organisation or individual”.