Far-fetched and fantastical? One aspect of Squid Game could be all too real

Netflix’s hit dystopian drama – with deadly playground games, anonymous masked henchmen and a giant murderous doll – is far-fetched to say the least. And yet, arguably, one storyline underplays the grim reality.

In just four weeks, Squid Game, the Korean production where contestants play children’s games and the losing players are killed, became Netflix’s most popular series ever and number one in 90 countries.

In one storyline, guards take the bodies of losing contestants and operate on them, removing vital organs while the subjects are still alive. These organs are then rushed to be sold to Chinese traders.

A grim reality

Astonishingly, this black market story has some basis in reality. Illegal organ trading has become a widespread and lucrative business for illegal groups around the world, with one estimate suggesting that 10,000 kidneys alone are traded on the black market worldwide annually – more than one every hour.

In most countries, including the UK, criminal gangs bear primary responsibility for this sinister and sadistic trade. In 2018, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime reported that they had collected information on approximately 700 victims of trafficking in persons for removal of organs detected in 25 countries over 13 years. This is likely a conservative estimate.

For example, a few years ago people smugglers in Egypt would often target refugees and asylum seekers from countries like Eritrea and Sudan, telling them that they could raise money to pay for sea crossings into Europe by selling their organs. In other cases groups even abducted refugees to extort exorbitant ransom payments from their families and friends.  When payments were not forthcoming, vital organs were forcefully harvested in unhygienic conditions, generally resulting in the death of the person concerned.

China is also home to this sinister trade, but recent years have also seen allegations emerge which suggest it is home to another form of illegal organ harvesting – one sanctioned and organised by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) itself.

Organ harvesting on an industrial scale?

In particular, activists allege that the CCP is responsible for industrial level organ harvesting sometimes specifically targeted at members of ethnic and religious minorities and prisoners of conscience. CSW has not been able to independently verify these allegations, but the accusations certainly offer cause for concern in light of the CCP’s well-documented and egregious human rights violations.

For example, a series of reports by human rights lawyer David Matas, former Canadian cabinet minister David Kilgour and China analyst Ethan Gutmann, found evidence to suggest that Falun Gong practitioners – a spiritual movement which has been banned in China since 1999 – had been particularly and unwillingly targeted, finding that “the source of 41,500 [organ] transplants for the six-year period 2000 to 2005 is unexplained.”

In 2019 an independent people’s tribunal into forced organ harvesting of prisoners of conscience in China chaired by barrister and former judge Sir Geoffrey Nice QC also raised concern that forced organ harvesting may now be taking place amid the ongoing human rights crisis in the Uyghur region.  

Forced organ harvesting has been committed for years throughout China on a significant scale and that Falun Gong practitioners have been one – and probably the main – source of organ supply. The concerted persecution and medical testing of the Uyghurs is more recent and it may be that evidence of forced organ harvesting of this group may emerge in due course. The Tribunal has had no evidence that the significant infrastructure associated with China’s transplantation industry has been dismantled and absent a satisfactory explanation as to the source of readily available organs concludes that forced organ harvesting continues till today. The Tribunal further concluded that crimes against humanity against the Falun Gong and Uyghurs have been proved beyond reasonable doubt.”

Short form conclusion of the China Tribunal’s judgement

A call to action

The organ harvesting storyline is not one of the most dominant features of Squid Game, but it does illustrate that even the most far-fetched and horrifying stories can often have some basis in reality.

The programme’s themes of social injustice and discrimination have clearly struck a chord with audiences around the world, and our hope and prayer at CSW is that anyone stirred by the unspeakable horrors depicted in the show would be moved to stand up, speak out and challenge the equally grave atrocities taking place in our world today.

By CSW’s Head of Campaigns Dave Mance

Featured Image: Screenshot from Squid Game/Netflix


Pastors or fraudsters? Neither registered nor unregistered religious leaders are safe from the Chinese Communist Party’s false allegations

Under China’s current religious regulations, only government-approved faith leaders can carry out government-approved religious activities in government-approved sites. As a result, there are many situations in which a religious leader can find themselves on the wrong side of the law in China, even facing charges that have no apparent connection to religion but can carry lengthy sentences.

The widely-reported cases of Pastor Wang Yi and Pastor Yang Hua highlight how the Chinese authorities prosecute leaders of unregistered Protestant churches with flagrantly baseless criminal charges: ‘inciting to subvert state power’ and ‘illegal business operations’ for Wang and ‘divulging state secrets’ for Yang. Alarmingly, fraud charges seem to have become one of the most damaging tools that the authorities use against pastors, for persecution as well as defamation.

Elder Zhang Chunlei

On 1 May 2021, the day the new administrative measures on religious clergy came into effect, Love Reformed Church received a notice saying their leader Zhang Chunlei had been officially arrested ‘on suspicion of fraud’. To this, the unregistered church in Guiyang in Guizhou province expressed incredulity in a prayer update issued on the same day.

Continue reading “Pastors or fraudsters? Neither registered nor unregistered religious leaders are safe from the Chinese Communist Party’s false allegations”

From one crackdown to another: The life of Xu Na

In China, June is a sombre month for those who remember the mass pro-democracy protests across the country and the military’s bloody crackdown in 1989. Remembrance itself is an act of defiance against the suppression and manipulation of history by the Chinese authorities. Each year, events are held worldwide to pay tributes to the victims and their families.

What is less widely reported however, is how survivors’ lives have been changed by the tragic events of  ‘June 4th’, as the events are known in China.

One of the protesters on Tiananmen Square was Xu Na, then a student at Beijing Broadcasting Institute (BBI). She was holding a banner with her fellow friends that read “Freedom of the Press; Freedom of Speech” while marching through the Beijing streets. Thirty-two years later, Xu Na is in another place in Beijing: Dongcheng District Detention Centre, where she has been criminally detained for the past 11 months.

Continue reading “From one crackdown to another: The life of Xu Na”

Seek the truth at all costs: A call for the release of Zhang Zhan on the first anniversary of her detention

“We should seek the truth and seek it at all costs. Truth has always been the most expensive thing in the world. It is our life.”

These are the words of the brave Chinese citizen journalist and former lawyer Zhang Zhan. For her, seeking the truth meant travelling to China’s Wuhan in February 2020, right at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic. There, she published videos and articles reporting on the crisis to both Twitter and YouTube, both of which are blocked in China.

Zhang’s reporting, and particularly her questioning of whether the Chinese authorities’ response to the pandemic had infringed on human rights unsurprisingly provoked the ire of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). On 14 May 2020, a year ago today, she was seized by Shanghai police in her hotel room in Wuhan and taken to a detention centre in Shanghai.

She subsequently spent seven months in detention, during which time concerns were repeatedly raised over her health and wellbeing – particularly as she remained on hunger strike in protest of her treatment.

Continue reading “Seek the truth at all costs: A call for the release of Zhang Zhan on the first anniversary of her detention”

North Korea and the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region: Grim parallels in two of the most repressive parts of the world

On 3 March the China-focused information platform SupChina published translated extracts from a 16-hour discussion in a “room” on the app Clubhouse called “Is there a concentration camp in Xinjiang?” The room attracted an incredible 4,000 participants, but the truly remarkable thing about the conversation was that it brought together Uyghurs and Han Chinese people – both inside and outside China – in a space momentarily beyond government restrictions.

Reliable information about what is happening to the Uyghurs is heavily censored in China; the only news about the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region is from state media, which paints Uyghurs as either potential terrorists or grateful recipients of the government’s “re-education” programme.

Before it was banned, Clubhouse briefly provided a brand-new channel for open discussion of one of the most sensitive issues in China today. SupChina described the conversation as “historic,” and it was; historic, moving, tragic and illuminating.

Continue reading “North Korea and the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region: Grim parallels in two of the most repressive parts of the world”