WASHINGTON -- Famed dissident Wei Jingsheng had heard the gruesome rumors that the organs of Chinese prisoners were being "harvested" at their execution, had heard the screams and struggles of his fellow inmates on death row.
But it was not until his 20-year-old cellmate, Zhang, screamed out in 1980 on his way to his execution, "I'm not sick, I don't need a doctor," that Wei decided that the tales of men in white coats with medical bags escorting prisoners to their deaths had to be true.
The story, related yesterday during a House hearing, provided congressional Republicans with an emotionally powerful way of assaulting the Clinton administration's China policy weeks before the president's trip to Beijing. But the joint hearing on Chinese human organ trafficking was only one venue for attack.
On the ninth anniversary of China's crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Beijing's Tiananmen Square, dissidents and lawmakers held hearings, assembled press conferences, convened "summits" and called for votes, all to lambaste the Beijing administration.
Behind closed doors, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence grilled CIA Director George J. Tenet on the alleged transfer of sensitive missile guidance technology from U.S. aerospace companies to the Chinese. It was the first of a series of classified hearings planned on the issue.
With troubling questions on an array of China-related controversies still unanswered, many lawmakers implored the president to cancel his trip, which is to begin June 24.
If he must go, they urged him to avoid a scheduled Tiananmen Square reception June 26. The House voted last night 305 to 116 -- with many Democrats joining the nearly unanimous Republicans -- to implore the president not to appear in Tiananmen Square.
"Mr. President, this trip is not in the American interests. It sends the wrong message at the wrong time," Sen. John Ashcroft, a Missouri Republican, intoned.
But Clinton is certain to go to China, having decided that strengthening ties is a more effective way to advance U.S. interests than cutting them off. White House officials have promised he will raise human rights concerns.
"The fact and the historical reality of what happened in June of 1989 in and around Tiananmen Square will surely be acknowledged in some fashion during the president's trip," said White House spokesman Mike McCurry. He noted that the leaders of many other nations have been received in the square in recent years.
"That's the way they do it," McCurry said. "And that's the way we'll do it. Let's not confuse protocol and policy."
Clinton had his share of House supporters. Henry A. Waxman, a California Democrat, said raising human rights issues like "organ harvesting" is precisely why the president must go to China.
Alcee L. Hastings, a Florida Democrat, told a joint hearing of the Government Reform and Oversight and International Relations committees, "To continue to impugn this administration for its alleged silence is beyond the pale of partisanship."
But impugn they did. Rep. Christopher H. Smith, a New Jersey Republican, said "the president speaks softly and carries no stick" on Chinese human rights abuses.
"The voice of this administration is silent on human rights," charged Linda Smith, a Washington Republican, who contended the administration is more interested in advancing U.S. economic interests than in the alleged abuse of Chinese citizens.
Despite all the charges of administration silence, the federal government has begun to take a stance over alleged human LTC organ sales by Chinese citizens. Last February, the FBI arrested two Chinese citizens in New York suspected of peddling organs from executed criminals.
A State Department official said the issue has been brought up repeatedly with Chinese officials.
"There's not anything in the human rights agenda that we treat as sacrosanct. The point of our relationship with China is that we can talk about things like this, get beyond Beijing's hypersensitivity, and get some kind of accounting or explanations," he said.
While no one would condone the sale of organs extracted from condemned prisoners, the picture of the practice that emerged from yesterday's hearings was complex and emotional. Chinese dissident Harry Wu said up to 60 percent of the corpses on Chinese prisoners have been harvested for organs, often against the will of the prisoner's family or without the family's consent.
According to the human rights group Amnesty International, 6,100 prisoners were sentenced to death in 1996, often on relatively trivial charges. That year, the group confirmed 4,367 executions.
And with rising executions have come rising organ transplants. Last year, 3,000 kidneys were transplanted, according to Wu, who called the burgeoning organ business "murder on demand." As many as 90 percent of those kidneys came from prisoners, he said.
Somporn Lorgeranon, a Thai computer account manager, related his struggle with kidney disease and the kidney transplant from a Chinese prisoner that saved his life.
"If someone is killed just because the government wants to sell the body parts, that is wrong," Lorgeranon said. "But it is a difficult question, because if the person really did something wrong, then their body parts are used to help others."
Pub Date: 6/05/98