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A Look at Von Hagens’ Body Plastination Factories

[Editor’s Note: On August 9, 2012, the Chinese government held a one-day trial of Bo Gu Kai Lai for murdering British businessman Neil Heywood. Many people questioned the government’s handling of the case, saying it was calculated to cover up facts it did not want revealed. One question raised was about the body plastination factory that German businessman Gunther von Hagens started in Dalian when Gu’s husband, Bo Xilai, was the head of Dalian City, Liaoning Province. What role did Gu and her husband play in arranging for von Hagans to obtain bodies for the plastination factory? This topic surfaced on overseas Chinese media first, then mushroomed on micro blogs and online forums in China. As a result, von Hagens’ plastination factory has drawn more and more attention on the Internet. On August 16, 2012, China’s Caijing Magazine was one of the first in China to break the media’s silence. It published a report on the increasing number of micro blog condemnations of von Hagens’ factory and raised questions about its operation. Below is an excerpt from the original report.] [1]

Where on earth did von Hagens find the cadavers that he used as specimens? How did his company manage to get “High Tech” enterprise recognition from the Dalian Municipal Government (enabling it to acquire bodies)? Are there some horrifying (profit-making) connections behind the body exhibit?

One condemnation after another has been posted on microblogs, railing against von Hagens, the German who started the strange “cadaver factory” in Dalian. Xie Runliang, a poet who studies traditional Chinese culture, had serious questions: “How could von Hagens, the character who is condemned around the world, contentedly open up a cadaver processing factory in China?”

Von Hagens Dalian Plastination Limited

In 1996, von Hagens was a visiting scholar at Dalian Medical University. In 1997, he collaborated with Dalian Medical University to create the first plastination research center in China. Sui Hongjin was the research center’s director. In 1999, von Hagens founded Dalian Plastination Limited in the Dalian high tech region. Sui Hongjin was named president of the company. Only a year later, however, Sui resigned. According to a report from Hong Kong media, Sui left because he was afraid of potential legal liabilities for von Hagans’ frequent importation of dead bodies into China through underground channels.

In 2000, after leaving the von Hagens’ factory, Sui started the Dalian Medical University Plastination Company. In 2004, his company hosted a Body Worlds Exhibit at the China Architectural Culture Center in Beijing. There were at least 17 complete body specimens and 160 specimens of human organs on display at the exhibit.

The Economic Benefit from Using Human Bodies

Von Hagans opened his online store in November 2010. At that time, a complete human specimen sold for as high as 69,615 euros or 700,000 yuan (US$110,173); a torso for 58,000 euros or 580,000 yuan (US$91,286); and a brain for 23,000 euros or 230,000 yuan (US$36,200). The price did not include packaging and shipping. For consumers on a low budget, the online store also sold a transparent biopsy slide of the body for 121 euros or 1,210 yuan (US$190).

So who were the buyers? Von Hagens insisted that his products are for “authorized buyers” and not for sale to the general public. What he meant by “authorized buyers” were scientists or university personnel that could present written documentation stating that the product would be used for research, education, or other medical research purposes.

Prior to this, a report carried by Oriental Outlook Magazine indicated that the total investment in von Hagens’ factory was over 100 million yuan (US$15.73 million), making it the largest plastination factory in the world. Its Dalian branch conducts 80 percent of the research and development, as well as production. All of the human specimens are used for commercial exhibits. According to Beijing News, Forbes magazine’s research showed that, between 1999 and 2006, von Hagens made a net profit of US$40 million.

This largest human body specimen factory used human remains ranging from Chinese embryos to adults of different ages. Their bodies were then posed in awkward positions as human specimens. These bodies, which are now exhibited around the world, have earned von Hagens over US$900 million in profits.

Heated Public Discussions

Last night on microblogs, other than the discussion surrounding “safeguarding the Diaoyu Islands [2],” the other major topic was von Hagens’ body exhibit. The most controversial one was a specimen of a pregnant woman with her eight-month-old embryo (still in the womb). Based on Chinese law, a pregnant woman can’t be executed. Even if the pregnant woman dies during a car accident, her family would never allow the body to be made into a human specimen. Many questioned the source of this cadaver.

Most of the specimens used in von Hagens’ World Exhibit came from China. However, China is a nation that believes that the dead will not be at peace until they are buried. How can such a body processing exhibition be explained when it is against traditional morals? Columnist Lian Peng was outraged: “Our Chinese people live a life without dignity while they are still alive; they then have to serve as a money-making machine after they die. How sad is that!”

Where Did the Cadavers Come From?

Writer Chen Lan said that there is a strict process for donating bodies in China and around the world. The precondition is that the person must give his or her consent. China has an extremely low body donation rate, which means that medical schools have a severe shortage of bodies. It is illegal to use a body for medical purposes without the prior consent of the person or the permission of his family, let alone to use the body in a commercial exhibit. The dead deserve to be treated with dignity and would not like to be nailed on a display platform in a bizarre pose, naked, with their hearts and abdomens cut open. Those who don’t respect the dead, will not respect the living either.

Many people have questioned: Are the medical and funeral systems throughout the nation selling our bodies to make money? Did (von Hagens’ factory) obtain the cadavers legally? Which law covers (von Hagens’) project? Why do the only bodies it uses all come from China?

It’s worth looking at the disclaimer that appears on von Hagens’ website:


“This exhibit displays human remains of Chinese citizens or residents which were originally received by the Chinese Bureau of Police. 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. … (Premier relies solely on the representations of its Chinese partners and cannot independently verify that they do not belong to persons executed while incarcerated in Chinese prisons.)”

China’s Policy on Exporting Human Specimens

Most of the bodies that von Hagens’ factory used in Dalian came from China and were used for the World Exhibit. In 2003, Oriental Outlook Magazine started an investigation into the cadaver factory in Dalian. The Ministry of Health and the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection, and Quarantine have jointly issued notices emphasizing that human specimens can’t casually leave China. The notice requires that whenever human remains leave China, “Interim Measures for the Administration of Human Genetic Resources” must be followed and an export certificate through the Administration of Human Genetic Resources Office must be obtained before the party can file claims with customs.

In 2003, based on the information that Oriental Outlook obtained from the office of the Administration of Human Genetic Resources and from the Science Education Department of the Ministry of Health, no plastination company had come to them to file an import/export certificate and an “Application for the Import/Export Special Article for Verification of Health and Quarantine.”

A Different Version: On von Hagens’ Legitimacy

On January 15 2004, a news reporter visited the Dalian Industrial and Commercial Bureau. Deputy Bureau Chief Li Xuesong gave us a brief introduction to the filing process for a foreign company. Von Hagens’ Dalian Plastination Limited, a solely German-owned company, was founded in August 1999. The Dalian Municipal Bureau of Foreign Trade and Economic Cooperation and the Dalian Industrial and Commercial Bureau approved it.

Li showed the reporter the “Certificate of Approval” issued by the Dalian Municipal government. The approval number: Foreign Trade and Economic Cooperation Bureau, Large Capital [1999] #0298 (外经贸大资字 [1999] 0298号). Business license registration number: Solely-owned company, Liaoning, #07598 (企独辽大总副字第07598号). There was also an approval document from the Dalian High-tech Industrial Park.

Li retrieved the company’s information from the database. The database listed the company’s registered capital as US$8 million with a total investment of US$15 million.

Zhang Conggang, the Deputy Director of the Dalian Entry-Exit Inspection and Quarantine Bureau, clearly assured the reporter that von Hagens’ Dalian Plastination Limited has followed all the rules and requirements in transporting human remains and that there were no issues related to transporting corpses or to health inspection or quarantine.

Another person from the Entry-Exit Inspection and Quarantine Bureau told the reporter that China does not have specific guidelines on exporting dead bodies. The bureau has to follow the pertinent rules within the “Frontier Health and Quarantine Law.”

Lu Shuhua, an administrator with von Hagens’ Dalian company stated, “Most of the human specimens come from donors in foreign countries. Currently there are 5,300 registered donors in Germany. Body donations are completely legal in Germany.”

The first phase of development of von Hagens’ Dalian company involved the purchase of 30,000 square meters of land, with a total investment of US$15 million. 25,000 square meters of land are reserved for a second phase of development. The Dalian Municipal government has listed the company’s development as a leading project for the city.

Specimen plastination factories have been established in a number of cities within China, including Guangzhou, Shanghai, Nanjing, Qingdao, Shenzhen, Taian, and Dalian.

[1] Caijing, August 16, 2012
[2] The Diaoyu Islands, also known as the Senkaku Islands in Japan, are a group of uninhabited islands controlled by Japan in the East China Sea. China, Taiwan, and Japan all claim ownership over these islands. On August 15, 2012, Japan arrested 14 Hong Kong activists who had sailed to the Diaoyu Islands, where they planted China’s flag.
[3] Bodies, the Exhibition: Disclaimer issued by Premier, one of the involved companies