When the model and actress Anastasia Lin was crowned Miss World Canada last year, a fairly easy and lucrative career lay in front of her: magazine shoots, sponsorship opportunities and being paid to turn up to parties. She instead decided to use her position to confront the Chinese Communist party and call out its human rights abuses. Her new film The Bleeding Edge is a feature-length dramatisation about the organ trade in China. It might not be in a cinema near you soon, but it does screen in the House of Commons next week, in front of MPs and peers. And this is the audience that 26-year-old Lin is seeking.
Her website has the slogan ‘beauty with a purpose’, and Lin has both in abundance. Speaking from Toronto before her visit here, she tells me her unlikely story. Born in Hunan, China, she moved to Canada aged 13 with her mother. Outside the Great Firewall of China, she started to learn about the country’s history of human rights violations. She was shocked to discover that, contra to schoolbook propaganda, ‘Tibetans were not evil people’ and nor was Falun Gong ‘a cult that kills people’. She also learned about the Tiananmen Square massacre, and the protesters who defied the state.
Lara Prendergast speaks to Anastasia Lin on this week’s Spectator podcast:
She took inspiration from an unlikely source: Miss Canada 2003, the Iranian-born Nazanin Afshin-Jam. They met, and Afshin-Jam told Lin that, used wisely, the Miss Canada crown can be a political weapon. So when Lin won last year, she leapt at the chance to speak out about Chinese tyranny. The world final was being hosted in China and the Beijing authorities banned her from attending without giving a reason. She was shocked. ‘I was a 25-year-old theatre student, no possible threat to the regime,’ she said. ‘But I came to realise that they were afraid of Chinese people watching me on their televisions. Seeing that beacon of hope. Seeing that a girl who was actually one of them could become like that.’
Emboldened, she tried to smuggle herself into China via Hong Kong but was refused entry — leading to even more publicity. She used that to draw attention to state-sanctioned abuse in China against Tibetans, Buddhists and Christians, as well as against practitioners of Falun Gong, a spiritual exercise and meditation regime that she now follows, and which is outlawed in China. This was the subject of her film Red Lotus, which she made two years ago.
She tells me about her new campaign, against the Chinese practice of organ harvesting. The problem is that while organ transplants are sometimes necessary — in China as everywhere else — organ donation runs contrary to Chinese culture. ‘The Chinese see the body as something given by a mother and father — that we come in one piece and we go in one piece,’ she says. ‘So in China, there has been virtually no one donating their organs. Each transplant performed means an organ was taken from someone forcefully, or that it was bought.’ Following investigations by foreign media, the Chinese government was forced to concede that it had been using organs from prisoners on death row — but still the numbers didn’t add up. How was it that Chinese hospitals could schedule a transplant operation weeks in advance?
Lin suspects that the answer lies in China’s practice of harvesting organs from ‘the people who are considered subhuman by the Chinese Communist party: Tibetans, the Uighurs, Christians, Falun Gong practitioners.’ She says prisoners from these groups report being subjected to strange, intensive tests. ‘Many of the people I interviewed for the film had their corneas checked, their lungs inspected and their blood examined,’ she says. Some campaigners have speculated that prisoners are executed to order, as and when organs are needed.
But she concedes that it’s hard to gather a clear picture. The victims of organ harvesting tend to be dead. ‘That’s one of the difficulties of researching this topic.’ But she has learnt enough to be called as a witness by the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission a few months ago. John Bercow, the Speaker, then invited her back to Parliament to show her film to MPs. ‘I’m really encouraged by his offer,’ she says. ‘The victims usually don’t have a voice — I have become their voice.’
A cynic might accuse Lin of using the organ trade as a cause to pump up her own glitzy film career. The reverse, she says, is true: ‘Film producers have actually called me and told me that I’m pretty much black-listed in Hollywood.’ Such is the hold the Chinese market now exerts over the American film industry.
The film, which was made in Canada, has met critical acclaim but political froideur. Lin says she received a chilly response when inviting dignitaries to attend next week’s screening. ‘When I invited the Canadian High Commission in the UK, they told me that they have to consult the China division before their officials could come. It’s not that the Chinese apply pressure on them to withdraw and not attend, it’s that they pre-emptively decide that they are going to sanitise anything from their schedules so that the Chinese won’t get angry. It is a form of self-censorship,’ she says.
I ask if her film risks reinforcing western stereotypes about China as a semi–barbaric land of forced labour and penury. ‘China is not barbaric, that’s for sure,’ she says. ‘Before the Cultural Revolution this was a highly sophisticated country with a rich culture. China was a jewel, but the Communists have turned it into this Frankenstein’s monster that has five lungs, five hearts and no soul. The human rights abuse is Communist — it’s not China, not the Chinese people. It could potentially happen in any country where people are submitted into that kind of system. I was one of them too.’
Now, she says, she’s a Canadian, and free to speak up for the Chinese people. She’ll find out next week how many British parlia-mentarians will listen.
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