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‘An Unimaginable Crime’—Katrina Lantos Swett on China’s Murder for Organs Industry

I sit down with Katrina Lantos Swett, president of the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice and co-chair of the recently concluded International Religious Freedom Summit. We discuss her fight for human rights and religious freedom, including raising awareness about the Chinese regime’s practice of forcibly harvesting the organs of Falun Gong practitioners and other prisoners of conscience.

And we discuss the legacy of Swett’s late father, Congressman Tom Lantos, a survivor of the Holocaust, and what inspires her to continue her work.

“My father had escaped from a slave labor camp. He was able to make his way back to Budapest and he found refuge in one of the safe houses that Raoul Wallenberg had set up … One of the things that [Raoul] Wallenberg did was he rented a number of buildings around Budapest, hung the Swedish flag there, basically said these are now part of the Swedish legation, and they are off-limits to the Nazis and to the Hungarian Arrow Cross,” she says. Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat, started issuing “protective passports” and inspired other members of the diplomatic corps in Hungary to do the same.

“My mother would tell us: we called Wallenberg our Moses from the North, who had come to save us and lead us to the promised land. And so from a young age, both my sister and myself, we knew the stories of danger and of terror, but [also] that someone had come to help.”


Interview trailer:

Watch the full interview:



Jan Jekielek:

Katrina Lantos Swett, such a pleasure to have you on American Thought Leaders.

Katrina Lantos Swett:

Thank you so much, it’s an honor to be here.

Mr. Jekielek:

We’re here at the tail end of the third International Religious Freedom Summit, or IRF Summit. I’ve heard it described as perhaps the largest gathering of its kind in the world. As one of the co-chairs, why don’t you tell me what was really accomplished here?

Ms. Swett:

For a number of years, many of us who have been active in the international religious freedom space have felt that we needed to somehow bring all the disparate elements of this movement together so that we could find strength in numbers, build momentum, educate, network, and strengthen coalitions. It really was the brainchild of Ambassador Sam Brownback. He served as our Ambassador-at-Large for Religious Freedom, and he organized the first Earth Ministerial, which was a government-driven gathering of ministers.

When his term ended as our earth ambassador, he realized and really caught vision of this idea of creating a civil society-driven event, because so much of the change on the ground, especially around international religious freedom, really does have to come from these disparate communities that need to be brought together, so they can strengthen one another and really build a movement. So, I think we’ve accomplished a lot. And again, Ambassador Brownback’s words birthed the movement and brought it into existence. It’s been a bit of a toddler, but now it’s on its feet and moving forward, and we’re very excited about that.

Mr. Jekielek:

I really want to talk about the realities in China. This is something that you’ve been vocal on for years and, in fact, your father, may he rest in peace, Congressman Tom Lantos, was also incredibly vocal about it. A few things struck me. One, we had Congressman McCaul speaking at the summit and he basically confirmed the reality of this murder-for-organs regime run by the Chinese Communist Party. And that’s something that I don’t typically see discussed at this level.

Ms. Swett:

I was so struck by Chairman McCaul, because he is now chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. From the summit plenary stage, he directly addressed the issue of forced organ harvesting. It’s been described as a crime almost too terrible to be true. As we know, the primary targets of this unspeakable crime against humanity have largely been Falun Gong practitioners, although there’s evidence and your newspaper has been one of those bringing it forward that they are also beginning to target Uyghur Muslims for this indescribably evil practice.

But, yes, we would view it as very much intersecting with the denial of freedom of religion. The forces in communist China that are driving this grizzly, gruesome, awful industry target religious minorities like the Falun Gong and the Uyghur Muslims for two reasons; first, to terrorize these minorities and have another vicious means of murder and persecution, second, because, ironically, especially with the Falun Gong, they tend to live very healthy lifestyles. And because this is an industrial scale harvesting of organs for commercial purposes basically, they are very interested in getting organs from those whose lifestyle is likely to be healthy inside and out.

And it is, as I say, an unimaginable crime. I was very grateful to Chairman McCaul for raising it from the plenary stage, and it has not been talked about enough. It’s a cause I’ve been engaged in for quite some time. I’m very alarmed and kind of sickened at the way some of our top medical institutions and medical schools have been willing to accept China’s denial of responsibility for this, and their false assurances that the practice has stopped.

There are just some clearly absurd statistics that make it quite clear that they are not telling the truth about this. I know China has now talked about establishing a volunteer organ donor registry. We’ve had that for many, many years in the United States. I believe, if my numbers are correct, we have about 140 million voluntary organ donors in the United States. Those are folks who on their driver’s license have said, “Yes, if I’m in an accident I want my organs to be used to assist somebody else medically.”

With a huge number of voluntary organ donors in this country, we have enormous waiting lists. Many people pass away because organs don’t become available in a timely fashion. That’s just the nature of this and one of those aspects of life that we have to contend with. China, by comparison, a country of over a billion people has about 1 million—a tiny fraction of the number that we have here in the United States—on their so-called voluntary organ donor list. And yet, somehow, in China organs can be ordered up within a couple of weeks. The numbers simply don’t add up.

I am very disappointed in medical institutions and others, who, with an inexcusable level of naivete, seem to be accepting some of China’s claims about having reformed their practices. They have not. They have not, and the best evidence is that there are still tens of thousands of organs being illegally harvested in China, annually.

My hope is that as we raise the profile of this crime, as the world becomes increasingly less intimidated by China’s size and wealth and starts telling the truth and calling China out. It will increase the pressure on that government. It is dictatorships like China that are terrified of acknowledging their own flaws and shortcomings, and that’s why they have to attack dissidents, human rights advocates, and groups like the Falun Gong that teach principles of compassion and justice and kindness and forgiveness. All of these are a threat to a brutal dictatorship.

My hope would be that as you have more prominent and powerful individuals like the Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee drawing attention to this issue, perhaps hearings will follow in the United States Congress. These shine a light, and shining a light is a kind of disinfectant. It starts to bring the light of truth, the light of day, and the light of exposure to these practices, and we have to hope that it will lead to change, change on the ground in China.

Mr. Jekielek:

When I’m thinking about hearings, I can’t help but think about your father who chaired many hearings specifically focused on human rights issues, and he was unapologetic in holding people to account. Of course, he was a Holocaust survivor as is my father-in-law, as many of our viewers know. Here’s something I’ve wanted to ask you for some time. My wife had this moment in her life where she really fully grasped what her father had experienced. At that moment this changed her and gave her more motivation in her life. Did you have such a moment, or do you remember such a moment?

Ms. Swett:

I remember a number of moments in our childhood, my sister’s and my childhood. My father did not talk about his experiences during that dark time. I think that’s not uncommon; those were painful, painful times and difficult things to remember. But when we were still quite young, my parents both began telling us about a light that was shown in the darkness and that was the Swedish humanitarian Raoul Wallenberg.

My parents’ lives were in different ways saved by Wallenberg. My father had escaped from a slave labor camp. He was able to make his way back to Budapest and he found refuge in one of the safe houses that Raoul Wallenberg had set up in Budapest. Wallenberg was sent to Hungary after the occupation by the Germans with really just one mission, and that was to try and rescue and save as many of the innocent Jews as possible.

One of the things that Wallenberg did was to rent a number of buildings around Budapest, apartment buildings and others, and hung the Swedish flag there. He basically said, “These are now part of the Swedish legation, and they are off limits to the Nazis and to the Hungarian Arrow Cross.” Now, when we say safe houses, you have to do it a little bit in quotes, because whenever the quotas were not being met for deportations, they would sometimes raid these safe houses and march the residents off to the train stations and deport them.

Whenever news of that reached Wallenberg’s ears, he would race to that place and personally confront the German commander and say, “These people are under my protection, this is part of the Swedish legation. You’re violating diplomatic laws and immunities.” And many times, he was able to save those people, but it was very touch and go.

My mother was saved, because Wallenberg was able to engage other members of the diplomatic corps to follow his example by issuing protective passports called Schutz-Passes. These were documents that basically said for the individual carrying it, either they were a citizen of a country that they were not a citizen of, or they were under the protection of that country and had been given permission to immigrate. My mother and her mother were able to escape with a Portuguese protective passport, and that was following the example of Wallenberg.

So, we were very fortunate because even though they had experienced terrible things, they also said to us, “There was a light that was shown in the darkness.” My mother would tell us, “We called Wallenberg our Moses from the North who had come to save us and lead us to the promised land.”

And so, from a young age, both my sister and I knew the stories of danger and of terror, but also of someone that had come to help, and that’s so important. You know, when any community feels itself being thrown to the wolves, what a difference it makes when they are not alone, when they know that there are others who are ready to stand with them.

I hope that for communities that have been victims of forced organ harvesting in China, that word will reach them that the powerful chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee spoke up on the stage of the International Religious Freedom Summit, and called out this practice. I hope that it gives them some encouragement and some hope that they aren’t alone.

Mr. Jekielek:

You’re reminding me that I’ve heard both sides of the equation. I’ve heard many instances of people who have escaped from labor camps in China saying when they heard these kinds of messages it was incredibly encouraging, and it gave them hope. At the same time, I’ve heard stories of people being shown a video of American diplomats or congressional members being complicit with communist China, and that was actively used by the regime as a means of demoralizing people. So, it works from both sides.

Ms. Swett:

Oh, it absolutely does. During the Second World War they had the propaganda of when these beautiful women would broadcast to the American soldiers or to the prisoners of war saying, “Hey, your country has forgotten you and nobody knows about you.” That can be incredibly demoralizing. So, you’re right, it goes in both directions.

But I also remember Natan Sharansky who was a famous Refusenik prisoner in the old Soviet Union. He talked about how whenever a congressman, or a senator, or somebody prominent in the West would raise his case and mention his name, and it would get press coverage, he knew about it immediately, because somehow the very next day he had a little bit better food, or they might bring him a pillow in his prison cell.

That’s why it’s so important with that kind of attention, especially as it relates to prisoners of conscience, that we talk about them by name and talk about their cases, and lift them up in the media, because it’s followed by the bad guys who are imprisoning them. You’re right, that’s something we all need to keep in mind.

Mr. Jekielek:

Was there a particular moment when you knew that you wanted to be this type of person? I have to say it wasn’t just your father that was standing up publicly for the rights of people, I vividly remember your mother speaking at a Falun Gong event years ago.

Ms. Swett:

Yes. She was a power in her own right.

Mr. Jekielek:


Ms. Swett:

And still is. She lives with me. She’s 91 now and I can tell you, she’s still a warrior for human rights. But yes, growing up with that kind of mother and father, it has always felt like a very natural choice for me to want to be engaged in the human rights world and in the human rights fight. When my husband, former Congressman Dick Swett, became ambassador to Denmark I decided to pursue a PhD, and I chose to do my PhD on human rights and American foreign policy.

That’s when I really began to delve in, not just as an activist but also as an academic into the history of how the Congress has engaged on human rights. The activist side of my brain and the academic side of my brain came together. A number of years ago I was given the very great privilege of serving on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. I served two terms as the chair, and I was also the vice chair, and there my commitment to this cause deepened. It’s been kind of a natural progression. I don’t know that there was one “Aha” moment when the light went on, but it has felt like a mission and a calling for a long time.

Mr. Jekielek:

As I was preparing for this interview, I was looking through some older material, and I found some quotes from your father. I wanted to mention one, because I thought it was incredibly prescient to this day. “Rather than face the bitter truth, China has placed severe restrictions on the internet and enlisted America’s high-tech companies as their internet police.” And this is probably like 15 years ago.

Ms. Swett:

Oh, more than that. He saw it coming. You are so right; prescient is the right word. It just pains me at many levels that he didn’t live longer to lead the charge, because we need people in the Congress fearlessly leading the charge against China’s use of the great firewall of China as a kind of digital prison to keep the Chinese people locked behind this digital iron curtain that doesn’t permit them to freely and safely access the truth—to simply do what you or I can do from our phone or from our computer if we go to the local Starbucks. Anywhere we want, we can find out for ourselves, we can read for ourselves the information—pro and con, Right and Left.

But in China, we know they have the world’s most effective surveillance regime and the world’s most chilling internet censorship regime, and it’s very, very troubling. Many of us in the human rights movement feel that internet freedom is a key component of expanding the boundaries of freedom around the world. China gets that too. They fear internet freedom, and we see them exporting sort of their tactics and their technology, and their kind of MO to other dictatorial regimes.

You’re so right, my dad was very, very prescient in that regard. He was also prescient in understanding that too often high-tech companies and big businesses are all too willing to collaborate and bend the knee and cooperate with China, all in the pursuit of money. He once said something in a hearing, and it was pretty controversial. He had the chairman and founder of Yahoo in front of him. Yahoo had agreed to give information to China about the identity of a dissident who had used their platforms, and he was arrested and thrown in prison.

It was such a shameful collaboration by a major U.S. tech corporation. My father said words to the effect, “Technologically and economically you may be giants, but morally you are pygmies.” They weren’t used to hearing that kind of language from members of Congress, and I was so proud of him for calling them out so unsparingly. But we don’t have enough folks doing that in my humble opinion, and we need more, because our big corporations wield a lot of power, both economic power and social power, and they need to be held to account.

I’ll just mention one more thing. Just this past year in 2022 the Lantos Foundation gave our highest human rights prize to Enes Kanter Freedom, the NBA basketball star who dared to stand up to China. He wore sneakers that called for freedom for Tibet and stopping the Uyghur genocide. He was pulled off the court almost immediately, and China immediately stopped streaming games from his team, the Boston Celtics.

Instead of the NBA, which is a pretty powerful organization in its own right, standing by their guy and saying, “You know, we let other athletes put social justice messages on their jerseys or on their shoes, and this is his right under our system to express his views,” they basically hung him out to dry, fired him, and kicked him out of the NBA. Shame on them, shame on them. It was all over their fear about whether or not they would be streamed in China.

And you know what? The Chinese people really like basketball, and if the NBA had stood up and had shown some backbone and had shown some integrity and some moral values, eventually China would’ve buckled. Because they could have said, “Our athletes have that right,” or they could have said, “None of them do. We are not going to permit anybody to have any type of message.”

But that’s not what they did. It’s an example of corporate cowardice and lack of conviction and lack of courage. And actually, they’re not being asked to put much on the line, maybe a little bit of income, and maybe a little bit of awkwardness for a while. But we need to expect more of them and call them to be better.

Mr. Jekielek:

Katrina, as we finish up, aside from people that were just pure opportunists, there was this idea in the U.S. that by engaging with the Chinese Communist Party, we would change China, and we would make China more democratic. We’re talking about these censorship regimes and how powerful they are in China. With the revelations of these Twitter Files recently, and a bunch of interviews I’ve been doing recently, I am trying to understand the implications of all this.

It’s really almost like China has changed us in the wrong direction. This has profound implications, because you talked about here at home, we have the freedom to still know the Left and the Right. But what we’ve learned recently is actually in some cases, we didn’t have that freedom, and we didn’t even know. As we’re finishing up, I’m going to tie it back to religious freedom, because this has profound implications on religious freedom here. What lessons can we learn? What do we need to do as a society?

Ms. Swett:

We need to, once again, trust one another. The Twitter Files, it’s a big story, and it shouldn’t be ignored. I have a lot of friends, I’m a Democrat, a lifelong Democrat, as was my dad, and we believe very much in freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of expression. All of us, Left and Right, need to be concerned about the fact that entities like Twitter and Facebook were making themselves gatekeepers, and were somehow seeking to protect or prevent the American people from full access to information that we need, and have a right to have access to.

It’s a mistake when people on the center and Left side of the aisle shrug their shoulders and dismiss this as not that big of a story—it is a big story. It is a reflection of a lack of trust in our system, which is based on this robust free market of ideas. We all jump into that public square together, we argue, we debate, we share information, and we hope that the best ideas and the best solutions will emerge.

I’m still an optimist. I don’t think China has changed us that much, but it’s good that some of this news is coming out with some of these revelations. We are seeing reforms taking place. We do need to hold our journalists to their own high standards of journalism. We do not want them to be ideologues, we don’t want them to be gatekeepers, we want them to report the news fearlessly and without favor.

I hope that we can get back to a kind of journalism that trusts the reader and the viewer and the listener to make their own conclusions, and certainly doesn’t run interference for either political party or either point of view on an issue. Democracy really does depend on a free and independent press that is trusted, and that trust has to be earned. A little bit of that has been lost. There’s polling out there that shows that trust in the media is at an all-time low.

Some of our most well-known media organizations do need to take a look in the mirror. We all need to look in the mirror sometimes and say, “Okay, truth check, gut check.” But some of them need to do that and get back to doing what they have historically done so well, which is report the news.

Mr. Jekielek:

As the final moment here, because I have to let you go, this marketplace of speech that you’re describing which so resonates with everything I believe in, how important is that for religious freedom and freedom of conscience?

Ms. Swett:

So important, so vitally important. What makes America’s faith community so strong is that it is so diverse, and that for the most part we are respectful towards those whose deeply held beliefs may differ from our own. It was Voltaire who said something very interesting about religion in the public square, and I hope I get this more or less right, he said, “When you have only one religion you have dictatorship, when you have two you have civil war, but when you have many, then freedom can flow.” That’s a really important insight.

Our founders were brilliant and so far ahead of their time with their First Amendment protection, saying on the one hand there shall be no establishment of religion, no official religion in the United States, and on the other hand that there shall be free exercise of religion. That’s kind of the secret sauce—no official state religion, no official government benediction of a particular faith, or trying to restrain a faith. But by the same token, this multiplicity of faith communities should be able to freely exercise their faith. It’s a brilliant formulation, it’s been part of our secret sauce here in America, and I hope we can hold onto it.

Mr. Jekielek:

Katrina Lantos Swett, it’s such a pleasure to have you on the show.

Ms. Swett:

Thank you, it’s been a real pleasure to be on, and thank you for such thoughtful and wonderful questions.

Mr. Jekielek:

Thank you all for joining Katrina Lantos Swett, and me, on this episode of “American Thought Leaders”. I’m your host, Jan Jekielek.

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