A Macabre Marketplace

Jiayang Fan reports on efforts to curb China’s vast trade in human organs:

Even though China performs more transplants annually than any country except the United States, less than one per cent of the population in need of life-saving transplants receives them (as compared to about twenty per cent in the United States). According to China’s Ministry of Health, some 1.5 million people continue to wait for transplants. Traditional Chinese customs calling for bodies to be buried or cremated intact (so that a person may be reincarnated whole) discourage individuals from donating their organs. For the past three decades, the government has tried to make up the difference by harvesting organs from executed prisoners. Until 2007, nine-tenths of the country’s organ supply came from its tens of thousands of death-row inmates, whose executions have sometimes been expedited for the purpose of harvesting organs. …

Bowing to international pressure over the past five years, the Chinese have recently introduced measures to reduce the number of executions and to curb organ tourism, a practice that brings foreigners facing long waits for voluntary donations in their own countries to China, where they can pay to immediately obtain the needed organ. Although no official records are kept for such transactions, the tourists and donors have remarkably consistent profiles: the tourist, usually the citizen of a developed country, pays a substantial sum; the donor is a financially desperate Chinese citizen, or, in some cases, a permanently incarcerated one. …

Nicholas Bequelin, a senior researcher with Human Rights Watch in Hong Kong, told me that “the complete lack of transparency led to the emergence of a lucrative gray market, through which wealthy or politically connected individuals could source the organ needed for a transplant from scheduled executions.” According to Bequelin, the booming organ business has, in turn, led to a situation “in which unscrupulous criminals have started sourcing organs themselves, either by buying organs from sellers or even, in some cases, kidnapping and harvesting organs from their victims.”