Gu Kailai, Bo Xilai, and Plastination Exhibits Using Executed Prisoners

Created: 2012-08-16 16:52 EST

Category: China > China Focus


You've probably heard the controversy surrounding the international exhibitions that display plastinated human bodies—a controversy over where the bodies came from.

Well now, an inside source has told NTD that Bo Xilai and Gu Kailai were involved in facilitating the sale of unclaimed human bodies—people who did not give consent.

We're talking about Bo Xilai, the ousted Chinese Communist Party secretary, and his wife Gu Kailai, who was recently tried for murdering a British citizen.

So we set out to verify this information. We'll tell you what we know, what's unconfirmed but is logically the most likely, and what still needs further investigation.

The technique for plastinating human bodies was developed by this guy: German doctor Gunther von Hagens. He visited the city of Dalian in China's Liaoning Province in 1993, after contacting Sui Hongjin (隋鸿锦), an assistant professor at Dalian Medical University. The two built a relationship. And in December 1996, von Hagens accepted a visiting professorship at Dalian Medical University.

A few years later, von Hagens set up a plastination company called von Hagens Dalian Plastination Ltd, and hired Sui as his general manager. There's conflicting info about when von Hagens founded the company, though. Von Hagens' Body Worlds website claims it was in 2001, but company registration documents show that the Dalian city government approved the company in August 1999—while Bo Xilai was still mayor of Dalian.

According to this report from the Dalian Medical University News Online, in September 1999, the mayor of Dalian awarded von Hagens the title of "Honorary Citizen of Dalian." Presumably, that's because von Hagens had just invested millions of dollars to start his company there.

It also means that Bo Xilai knew von Hagens, and probably on a personal level too. After Bo was appointed mayor in 1993, Bo had pushed hard to attract foreign investment.

And von Hagens became quite successful. His Dalian body-processing plant became his biggest. According to an interview in 2003, von Hagens told Chinese state-run Oriental Outlook magazine that his Dalian plant brought in up to 80% of his entire profits at the time. Those profits came from his worldwide exhibits of the plastinated bodies, called Body Worlds.

But von Hagens eventually had a falling out with Sui Hongjin, his general manager. The New York Times reports that, while working for von Hagens, Sui secretly set up his own body plastination plant, and von Hagens fired him after he found out.

In June 2002, Sui officially registered his plastination company—one that directly competed with von Hagens'. He called it Dalian Medical University Plastination Co.  Dalian Medical University was originally a 70% owner, but a few years later the university distanced itself from it and sold its stake. In 2004 or 2005, Sui reincorporated it offshore (in the British Virgin Islands) under private ownership as Dalian Hoffen Bio Technique Co, Ltd.

So now there were competing companies in Dalian, dedicated to processing human corpses for plastination and export. Von Hagens' company used many of them for his Body Worlds exhibit. And Atlanta-based Premier Exhibitions paid $25 million to secure bodies from one or both of Sui Hongjin's companies. Premier now holds its Bodies: The Exhibition show in New York City, among other places. Both von Hagens and Sui also sold specimens for other purposes.

So where did they get the bodies? And where do Bo Xilai and Gu Kailai fit in?

Well, von Hagens claims that the bodies in all of his exhibits were voluntarily donated. And many of them appear Caucasian, not Chinese. In 2008, he told ABC's 20/20 that he cremated some of the bodies he received in China once he learned they were from executed prisoners. But still, when Oriental Outlook reporter Yu Jintao visited his plant in 2003, she expressed suspicion that the company didn't let them photograph the faces of any of the corpses.

Now, the source of Sui Hongjin's bodies is murkier. He told Chinese media in 2004 that all of his bodies came from medical schools, and that the people died of natural causes, and were abandoned or unclaimed. That already means there was no voluntary consent. It's unclear what Chinese law says about allowing unclaimed bodies to be given to medical schools—but in practice they can often get unclaimed bodies from the local police. But it gets shadier...

That same ABC 20/20 segment in 2008 interviewed a technician named Sun Deqiang, who said he was a body collector. Sun identified Chinese police and medical professors he said were involved in a black-market body business. Sun said he had personally delivered bodies of executed prisoners to Sui Hongjin's company. Sun later retracted his statement, saying von Hagens told him to lie.

Did Sui Hongjin provide bodies of executed prisoners to Premier Exhibitions? We still don't have hard evidence.

But we do know that, for cultural reasons, Chinese people are extremely reluctant to donate their bodies after death. For example, according to this 2011 article in Beijing Today, China's organ donation pilot program failed miserably because they could only get 37 voluntary organ That's 37 voluntary donors across the whole country. Chinese people do not like to donate their bodies.

But we do know that Sui somehow did get bodies—via the police department.

The controversy was enough to prompt New York's Attorney General to require Premier Exhibitions to post this statement at its exhibit and on its website:

"The Chinese Bureau of Police may receive bodies from Chinese prisons. Premier cannot independently verify that the human remains you are viewing are not those of persons who were incarcerated in Chinese prisons."

And who controlled the prisons, the police, and the courts? In Dalian, it was Bo Xilai.

Bo Xilai was mayor of Dalian from 1993 till 2001, and then governor of Liaoning province, which contains Dalian, through 2004.

We know from Bo's "Beat the Black" campaign several years later that he was highly skilled at manipulating the police and court system to achieve his own objectives.

Is it possible that Bo to used Dalian's court system and police to help von Hagens and/or Sui obtain bodies?

If so, he may have taken advantage of this 1998 Supreme People's Court ruling. Article 348 states that: "After execution, the People’s Court in charge should... notify the family of the convict to pick up the body within a period of time; and for those who can be cremated, notify the family to pick up the ashes."

According to former Chinese lawyer Peng Yongfeng, there's a loophole that makes it easy to misuse bodies and hide the evidence.

[Peng Yongfeng, Human Rights Attorney]:
"Basically this means the Court does not have to notify the family, and can cremate bodies right away. In reality, this makes it convenient for something they have been doing, that is, to remove organs from bodies before they are cremated."

Did Bo Xilai know about this law? His wife Gu Kailai certainly would have known. She was one of China's top lawyers. Could she have used her knowledge to help her husband arrange for private companies to get prisoners' bodies? It's not unlikely.

Gu may have also been involved in a more direct way.

While Bo Xilai was mayor of Dalian, she operated her own law firm called Law Office of Horus L. Kai, as well as a company that advised foreign businesses, called Horas Consultancy & Investment.

According to this LA Times article, a Hong Kong newspaper called Frontline wrote in 1999 that Gu Kailai used a nonprofit she ran, called China Culture Research Foundation, to funnel money to herself and Bo Xilai.

Jiang Weiping, a journalist based in Dalian while Bo and Gu were there, claimed Gu abused her position as the mayor’s wife to court foreign companies and profit from them. Jiang said, "Any projects you wanted done had to go through Gu Kailai's consultancy... It was a way of paying tribute to the Bo family."

Perhaps Jiang knew too much. In 2001, a Dalian court sentenced him to five years in prison for so-called subversion.

If what Jiang said is true, then both Gunther von Hagens and Sui Hongjin would have had to cooperate with Bo Xilai and Gu Kailai to set up companies and obtain bodies—obtain them in ways that may have been illegal. And Gu Kailai would also have probably made money from it.

So all that being said, here's a summary of what we know:

    • Von Hagens' former employee, Sun Deqiang, gave evidence to 20/20 that the Chinese Bureau of Police in Dalian was involved in the black-market body trade.
    • Von Hagens admitted to 20/20 that some of the bodies came from executed prisoners; he said he'd rejected those bodies.
    • But Sui Hongjin did accept and utilize bodies provided by the Chinese Bureau of Police—because that's acknowledged on the Bodies: The Exhibition website.
    • Bo Xilai oversaw the police in Dalian through at least 2001.
    • All major projects in Dalian, like the body plastination plants, had to be approved by Bo Xilai during that time.
    • Those major projects would almost certainly also have gone through Gu Kailai's consulting company.
    • And Bo Xilai gave von Hagens an award in September 1999, a month after he set up his company in Dalian.

That's the evidence we have—and it strongly suggests that Gu Kailai and Bo Xilai knew about von Hagens' and Sui's plastination plants in Dalian.

Now we still don't have an actual paper trail to prove Gu Kailai and Bo Xilai's direct involvement. And we don't have physical evidence that executed prisoners are used in the bodies exhibits—we only have eyewitness testimonies and a lack of other probable sources of bodies.

But our source tells us that that Gu Kailai and Bo Xilai were involved in facilitating the sale of these bodies, and based on the evidence we do have, we have no reason to doubt that at this point. The logic holds.

So this still an ongoing investigation. We hope you'll stick with us as we dig deeper.