From Aug. 21-23 in Guangzhou, China, several top Western medical organizations have indicated that they will provide China with long-awaited recognition for improving the country’s transplant system. Many critics have seen it as a human rights disaster waiting to happen—the equivalent of admitting as peer an abusive, unethical system of organ acquisition that relies on prisoners, and prisoners of conscience. In the context of this debate, we publish a short timeline of the history of abusive organ transplantation in China.
After a failed start in the 1970s, China’s organ transplantation industry began in the 1980s, with transplants from executed prisoners. Recipients were almost exclusively high-level Communist Party officials.
Death Row Inmates
In 1984, the Ministry of Public Security and other agencies promulgated provisions on transplanting organs from prisoners. “The use of the corpses or organs of executed criminals must be kept strictly secret,” the provisions said. To this day they have not been abolished.
During the 1990s, political prisoners, specifically belonging to the Uyghur ethnic group, began to be targeted for their organs. According to testimony from former police and surgeons in Xinjiang, the homeland of the Uyghur people, organs were removed before the prisoners’ hearts had stopped beating—the first known beginning of the practice of live organ harvesting.
In 1999, the former leader of the Communist Party, Jiang Zemin, began a nationwide persecution of the Falun Gong spiritual practice. Between 70 and 100 million Chinese practiced the discipline in the late 1990s, according to official and Falun Gong estimates.
By 2000, organ transplants in China began to explode. Transplant centers were established, new surgeons were trained, and Chinese hospitals began advertising waiting times for vital organs of only a few weeks. Heart transplant recipients were told the exact time their new organ would be ready—impossible if not timed around an execution. The new plentiful organ source was a mystery.
Beginning in 2006, witnesses, secret telephone calls, and investigative reports began to emerge indicating that practitioners of Falun Gong had become the major new source of transplant organs in China. Falun Gong refugees emerging from China reported being subject to unusual blood tests and examinations of organ function. Some reported being threatened with having their organs harvested if they did not recant their faith.
As the years went on, a fuller picture began to emerge: experts estimated that over 60,000 Falun Gong prisoners of conscience had been killed for their organs—or worse, had their organs removed while they were still alive.
Since 2012, many of the top officials responsible for the crimes against Falun Gong have been purged in an internal Party struggle. In 2015, Huang Jiefu blamed the former, powerful security chief for running a “filthy” organ harvesting system in which prisoners had their organs taken. Jiang Yanyong, the doctor who exposed SARS, blamed Xu Caihou, a top military commander, for allowing live harvesting. Falun Gong was never mentioned, and the public criticism was widely seen as an attempt to inoculate the current leadership from responsibility. Meanwhile, Huang Jiefu made promises to the West to phase out use of prisoner organs.
Despite mere promises—including one sent via email from an iPhone—major Western medical institutions appear set to acknowledge China’s transplant system as ethical. The move is intended to further encourage China to develop actual laws to stop unethical practices. But many worry that it will simply entrench an abusive and largely lawless organ transplantation industry, while the tens of thousands who have been unjustly killed so their bodies could be sold are forgotten.