Harvesting Organs in China: The Preparation for Sujiatun
Harvesting Organs in China: The Preparation for Sujiatun

The horrors of the Sujiatun death camp were prefigured and made possible by the system of harvesting organs that has been present in China for two decades.

That system treats prisoners as raw material to be exploited for profit. It hopelessly confounds the roles of courts and doctors. Courts are given incentives by the transplant industry to schedule executions. Doctors become de facto members of the criminal justice system. Instead of having as their only priority healing the sick, doctors become assistants in executions. 

The Beginning

According to traditional Chinese beliefs, only a whole body can go on to the next life. For this cultural reason, or because the Chinese Communist regime has never really tried to develop a system of voluntary organ donation, there are almost no voluntary donors of organs in China.

According to Professor Tsuyoshi Awaya of Tokuyama University in testimony given before the U.S. Congress in 1998, from the beginning organ transplants in China have depended on organs from executed prisoners.

In 1983 the immuno-suppressive drug cyclosporine was approved for use, greatly increasing the chances of successful transplant operations. Also in 1983, a series of “crackdown on crime” campaigns began, which resulted in a large increase in the number of executions of prisoners and thus a big supply of available organs.

These two developments provided the occasion for the birth of China’s regime of organ harvesting.

In 1984 six agencies, including the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Public Security, issued a secret directive that was published for the first time by Human Rights Watch: Asia in its report on “Organ Procurement and Judicial Execution in China.” “Temporary Rules Concerning the Utilization of Corpses or Organs from the Corpses of Executed Criminals” continues to this day to govern the procedures for harvesting organs in China.


Organ harvesting involves collusion between security agencies and medical officials that the rest of the world considers grossly unethical, and the treatment of prisoners that is considered not only unethical but inhumane. Organ harvesting is therefore carried out in secrecy.

This directive stipulates that “The use of the corpses or organs of executed criminals must be kept strictly secret…” 

In order to assure secrecy, “a surgical vehicle from the health department may be permitted to drive onto the execution grounds to remove the organs, but it is not permitted to use a vehicle bearing health department insignia or to wear white clothing. Guards must remain posted around the execution grounds while the operation for organ removal is going on.”

“Consent Is Not an Issue.”

This directive appears to protect the rights of the prisoners by assuring that organs may only be taken from them with consent. In fact, prisoners retain no rights to their own bodies.

According to the directive, organs may be used if any one of these conditions is met: “1. No one claims the body or the family refuses to claim the body; 2. The executed criminal has volunteered to have his corpse provided to a medical treatment or health unit for use; 3. The family consents to the use of the corpse.”

A prisoner in Sheynyang, China who is about to be executed stands with police. On the top row of the placard around is neck is his crime. Below that is his name, which has been crossed out, indicating he has been sentenced to death. (AFP/Getty Images)

These conditions are hardly strict. Even so, it is always the case in China that the rules as written down, even in secret documents, are not necessarily what counts.

A report in the South China Morning Post in January 2000 on liver transplants at Sun Yatsen Hospital in Guangzhou Province quoted one of the transplant doctors as saying “Consent is not an issue.”

Indeed, when a death sentence is handed down, the convicted prisoner is also stripped of all political rights, which immediately nullifies the guarantees provided in the 1984 directive.

Harry Wu of the Laogai Foundation explained in testimony before the U.S. Congress in 1998, the time and location of executions are kept secret, which means the family has no opportunity to make a claim for the body. They are simply given the ashes after it has been cremated. Or, families may be offered “pennies” for consent, and, as a cadre told Wu, “see if they dare say ‘no.'” 

The prisoner may give consent, but under the extraordinarily coercive conditions on death row in a Chinese jail, the giving of free and informed consent is not possible. The prisoner may be offered a slightly less painful regime of confinement if he consents, and at the same time knows more brutal mistreatment may follow upon refusal.

The Execution

Dr. Wang Guoqi, in testimony before the U.S. Congress in 2001, described one execution gone wrong in which he skinned a prisoner who was still alive. 

There are numerous accounts of organs being harvested from prisoners who are still living. In some cases, organs have been taken before the execution. In other cases, the execution by gunshot has been deliberately bungled to assure that organs are not damaged.

The use of lethal injection, which has been introduced in China over the last five years, may seem to be more humane than execution by gunshot. But it is also more sure–no organs are damaged by lethal injection. This method is preferred by China’s transplant doctors.

The number of executions in China is considered a state secret. Amnesty International can verify 2,468 executions in China in 2001. It estimates the actual number of executions to be far higher, perhaps as many as 10,000 each year. Liu Renwen, a scholar at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, recently stated that he believed the number of executions each year to be around 8,000.

70 offenses in China may now incur the death penalty, including theft and embezzlement. Four men in China were recently executed for falsifying VAT tax reports. Among those executed each year are prisoners of conscience. Because of the widespread use of torture to coerce confessions, and the general failures of the criminal justice system, a large percentage of convictions are believed to be false.


Organ transplants in China are big business. Prices vary, but transplants do not come cheap. According to an article in the Daily Telegraph , a transplant middleman offered a kidney transplant for $40,000. In an article in the Globe and Mail , a middleman quotes a price of $125,000 for a new kidney.

In any case, the money by the transplant patients is spread widely. Once in China, the patients are expected to offer “red envelopes” of cash to all their doctors and nurses. Doctors involved in the transplant pay judges and bailiffs. Everyone profits, and everyone has a stake in keeping the system going.

Harry Wu in the introduction to “Communist Charity,” the Laogai Foundation’s report on organ harvesting, reflects on how this system could come into existence. “The materialistic philosophy of the Communist Party sees human life as coming from matter. They think life has no value. In their re-education camps some people became so hopeless they took their own lives. Then the official would say ‘death only makes a piece of dirt smell.’ During my 19 years in re-education camp, I heard this line innumerable times.

“If even life and freedom do not have any value, let alone the dead, and the organs of the dead, then this is the basic perspective of Chinese Communist regime’s use of the organs of death row inmates.”

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