China’s media eagerly touted reforms in the nation’s organ transplant system following a major transplant conference in the city of Kunming in southwest China from Aug. 3 to 5. Chinese officials claimed China’s organ transplant system now sources only from voluntary donations, rather than from prisoners who have been executed.
But experts have pointed out glaring statistical discrepancies that suggest the claims may not be all they seem.
The supposed reforms equate to “attempts by a mass murderer to cover its tracks,” said Dr. Torsten Trey, the executive director of Doctors Against Forced Organ Harvesting (DAFOH), in an email interview.
Since China’s transplant system began its period of rapid growth in the year 2000, researchers believe that the main source of organs used to supply the industry have been practitioners of Falun Gong, a traditional Chinese spiritual discipline that has been brutally persecuted by the Chinese regime since 1999. Criminal prisoners who have been executed have always been used.
Dr. Trey said there is no evidence that these practices have ceased. “It is commendable, if China, or any other country, makes genuine reforms to meet ethical standards. But it would be a fatal mistake to applaud such reforms if they are only covering up more severe crimes against humanity.”
Holes in the Data
For many years the Chinese authorities denied that China harvested organs from executed prisoners. In 2005, Huang Jiefu, then deputy health minister, disclosed to the international community that prisoners were indeed used, as a matter of policy in China since 1984. He was referring to prisoners who have been sentenced to death after being convicted of crimes.
In 2006, allegations arose that the human rights abuses involved in organ transplantation were far more egregious than previously imagined: the Chinese regime was harvesting organs from living prisoners of conscience—people imprisoned for their beliefs rather than for actual crimes. An independent investigation by Canadian human rights lawyer David Matas and Canada’s former Secretary of State (Asia Pacific) David Kilgour found the allegations to be true.
The Chinese regime never admitted to these crimes, but following intense international pressure, it announced a ban on organ transplants from executed prisoners starting on Jan. 1, 2015. But the 1984 regulations were not abolished.
China now claims to have built a new public organ donation system operating just like that in the United States or other advanced countries. They claim an exponential increase in voluntary organ donations, despite the country being still highly culturally averse to organ donation (because it violates a Confucian tradition of keeping the body whole after death).
There were only 130 voluntary organ donations as of August 2009, according to Professor Chen Zhonghua of the Institute of Organ Transplantation in Tongji Hospital, in an interview with state-run media.
Yet Chinese officials claim that they had procured organs from over 4,000 organ donors in 2016 alone. In contrast, the UK, where 21 million people have registered to be donors, only had 1,364 people be the source after their deaths for organs in 2016. The United States, which has 140 million registered donors, had only 15,951 individuals provide organs after their deaths. Registered donors, also known as designated donors, are the number of people who, while alive, have expressed their willingness to donate their organs upon death (assuming they die in a manner that makes them eligible to donate.)
At the end of 2016, China claimed to have signed up 200,000 registered donors. Based on Dr. Trey’s estimates, if only the registered donors are supplying organs, China should have only had 20 to 40 people donate in 2016, a far cry from the claimed figure of over 4,000.
Using a death rate of 7 out of every 1,000 people, Dr. Trey estimated about 2,100 of China’s 200,000 registered donors passed away. And only 1 to 2 percent of them have organs suitable for transplantation, as is observed in the United States and the UK. The vast majority do not qualify because of the illnesses the donors died from, their unhealthy lifestyles, their age, or the time gap between death and organ retrieval.
And China does not need to only procure organs from registered donors; Chinese medical officials must also gain permission from the family. In China, a single family member can overrule the decision of the donor to donate, adding another obstacle to the process.
The additional difficulty of getting permission on each occasion, especially when any family member can derail consent to donate, raises questions about how genuine China’s official numbers are, Dr. Trey said.
In February, the medical journal Liver International retracted a scientific paper from Chinese researchers who were unable to prove they had ethically procured the organs used in their research. The paper referred to 564 liver transplants at The First Affiliated Hospital of Zhejiang University between April 2010 and October 2014. But Huang Jiefu, China’s organ transplantation spokesperson, stated that the First Affiliated Hospital received 166 liver donations between 2011 and 2014, leaving 398 livers of unknown origins.
DAFOH, which kept tabs on the number of organ donor registrations, found that at the end of both 2015 and 2016, there was a sudden spike in the number of registered donors. At the very end of December 2015, the numbers increased by exactly 25,000 people in one day.
The same phenomenon occurred again in December 2016, with an increase of over 86,000 donors in one week, ostensibly because they had combined two organ donation systems.
“China knows that its figures of registered donors are too small to yield more than 4,000 organ donors per year, thus it was necessary to increase the numbers. According to China’s official numbers, about 50% of all registered donors signed up in 7 days alone—within four years. That is inconceivable and unprecedented, ” Dr. Trey said.
China’s ‘Chameleon-Like’ Organ Transplant Chief
The face of China’s organ transplant reforms is Dr. Huang Jiefu, China’s organ transplant spokesperson. He is the chairman of China’s National Organ Donation and Transplantation Committee and head of the China Organ Transplant Development Foundation.
Although Huang was formerly the deputy minister of China’s Ministry of Health, he does not currently hold any official government position. Yet he has become the de facto spokesperson for China’s organ transplant system.
“What he says has no binding power on the Chinese government,” said Dr. Trey.
Dr. Trey pointed out that the organ transplant foundation Huang heads is private, like the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS) in the United States. “But the difference is, in the U.S., UNOS is not involved in making announcements on behalf of the government.”
Although Huang ostensibly speaks for the Chinese regime and is now touting reform in China’s organ transplant system, his words have no legal authority. And he has rapidly shifted his position based on the situation.
In an interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in 2013, he was asked about the practice of harvesting organs from executed prisoners, to which he replied, “Why do you object?” But following widespread criticism, he said at a conference soon afterwards that the practice was unethical.
In 2015, Huang said in several newspaper interviews that death row prisoners would be treated as citizens with the “right” to donate organs.
But after a firestorm of criticism that prisoners who were killed for their organs would simply be reclassified as voluntary organ donations, Huang told The New York Times his statement was only from a “philosophical level.”
Huang’s statements are “chameleon-like,” Dr. Trey said. “He seems to say whatever is needed to either obey pressure at home or to please the requests for ethical standards from the international community.”
Dr. Trey said his statements about reform of China’s organ transplant system similarly cannot be trusted.
“If reforms are praised while the hidden forced organ harvesting of Falun Gong practitioners and prisoners of conscience continues, then we find this devastating situation where this applause resounds while innocent people are slaughtered for their organs,” said Dr. Trey.
With reporting by Li Chen.