When I was 16 years old, I, like so many teens before me, reached a milestone in my life: I received my driver’s license. This meant no more relying on mom to drop me off at school, no more asking older friends for rides to tennis practice; I was finally free to drive on my own, and the world was mine to explore. After what seemed like hours of waiting at the DMV, I quickly filled out the information which would be inscribed on my license. My sex, my eye color, my date of birth: all listed off quickly and without much of an afterthought. These were all questions that I was used to being asked. However, there was inquiry I had never seen before. When you fill out the information for your license, the form asks you if you wish to be designated as an organ donor. Though at the time it did not seem like an important decision to make, looking back, I wish I had given the question more thought. Organ transplants save thousands of lives each year. In the United States, 28,953 people received organ transplants in 2013. While organ transplantation and donation is both relatively high and safe compared to other countries, China is a profoundly different story.
January 1st of this year marked China’s end in its practice of harvesting organs from executed prisoners. China has one of the highest needs for organ transplants in the world, and yet has one of the lowest transplant rates, with only 6 transplants per million people in 2013. What is especially striking about this statistic is that 65% of the donors are deceased, with 90% of those donors being executed prisoners. Human rights groups around the world protested organ harvesting, manly due to the accusations that the country quickens the execution process in order to increase its organ yield.
Many of these prisoners are members of Falun Gong. Falun Gong is a relatively new and rapidly growing spiritual movement that stresses “Truthfulness, Compassion,and Forbearance.” It was first practiced in 1992 by Li Hongzhi and grew quickly. By 1999, it had over 70 million members and was larger than the Communist Party with 61 million members. The Party saw this movement as a threat, labeling it as a “heretical organization,” and instituted an immediate crackdown which included anti-Folun Gong propaganda and the detention of thousands of practitioners in the years since.
Many of these prisoners have been executed. Ethan Gutmann, for example, estimates that 64,000 Falun Gong practitioners were executed for their organs from 2000 to 2008 ( The Slaughter: Mass Killings, Organ Harvesting, and China’s Secret Solution to Its Descendant Problem). A similar study by former Canadian Secretary of State David Kilgour and human rights lawyer David Matas shows that there have been roughly 41,500 transplants originating from unwilling Falun Gong practitioners.
Interestingly enough, despite the low transplant rate, the waiting time for an organ is much shorter and the cost of a transplant much lower in China as compared to the rest of the world. This led to transplant “tourists,” who, frustrated by the long waiting times in their country, often travel to China to receive a timely transplant. This suggests prisoners executions are expedited in order to meet this demand. China’s prison system is notorious for its prisoner abuse and its lack of transparency. Prisoners have little say in their organs being harvested, and their human rights are completely disregarded. The use of executed prisoners as a source of organs is a morally despicable and illegal practice under international human rights law.
Some first hand accounts have even claimed organs are harvested while the subjects are still alive. In one chilling testimonial in front of the Scottish Parliament, Dr. Enver Tohti, a Uighur, recalled how he was asked to remove the liver and kidneys from a prisoner who had just been executed by a firing squad. When cutting open the subject, he found that rather than no blood being drawn from the incision, the prisoner began to bleed profusely, indicating that he was still alive.
China’s decision to discontinue forced organ harvesting of prisoners will create issues for the Communist Party. China heavily relies on the prisoner’s organs to meet the demands for transplants as only 0.6 out of every one million people have volunteered to donate their organs posthumously. With China’s population being 1.35 billion in 2013, if no prisoners have their organs extracted when they die, only 8,100 organs will be available for transplants. If considering that a successful transplantation is based on the premise that the organ is healthy and matches the blood type and tissue of the recipient, an even smaller number of organs will be available. Only 1 in every 20 organs will meet these criteria, which will hardly accommodate the estimated 300,000 requests for transplants.
There are also significant cultural barriers that restrict a transition to a purely voluntary system for organ transplants. In Eastern philosophy the body and the soul are considered to be equally important. In China, it is believed that your body must remain intact after death in order for your soul to be reincarnated. Some have viewed organ transplants as a noble aspiration, and would act as a “continuation” of their life, yet this is still a minority view in the country. Others have expressed the hope that with the rise of information accessibility and the new generation, modern views regarding the issue will rise in popularity, yet, even if this is so, the old beliefs of China will persist for quite some time, especially in China’s agrarian heartland.In addition, an ancient belief in Chinese culture conveys that your body belongs to your parents, so a parent must provide consent in order for their child to be an organ donor. The Communist Party will still allow for prisoners to become organ donors before they are executed if they have permission from their parents. However, this hardly mitigates human rights concerns, as parental consent can be easily forced or forged.
An additional concern is that the donated organs will be sold on the black market. In August of 2011, police arrested gang members for attempting to recruit individuals online to smuggle kidneys disguised as frozen food. A kidney can sell for $32,000 on the Chinese black market. With corruption in the Chinese government already rampant, officials will be quick to look for other means to offset the loss in profits created by the outlaw of forced organ harvest. Illegal selling of donated organs will be high on their lists, as the organizational infrastructure and contacts already exists, and with a restriction of supply the payouts will grow even higher.
So what could China do to solve this dilemma? First and foremost, Xi Jinping’s government needs to abide by their January 1st resolution to discontinue the harvesting of prisoner’s organs. This activity is an affront to the basic human decency rights of prisoners and needs to stop immediately. Ideally, this would also lead to better treatment of the Falun Gong detainees. A hard stance on prohibiting organ harvesting would distinguish President Xi Jinping from his predecessors as a progressive president. For a short-term solution, the government should encourage greater enrollment in the voluntary organ donation scheme. Explicit government support could have a great impact on attitudes towards organ donation in China, and further monetary incentives would support this growth. In the long term, China needs to invest in organ generation through stem cells. If developed in an efficient and cost effective manner, this method would accommodate the needs of the population without necessitating organ donations.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Reiff Center For Human Rights and Conflict Resolution or Christopher Newport University.