An American university recently pressed ahead with awarding the Chinese minister of health an honorary doctorate, over the strenuous objections of researchers of organ transplantation practices in China. The symbolic gesture was made in the context of proposals to strengthen ties between the University of Minnesota and China, in what critics have said is a misguided approach that accepts at face value official Chinese pronouncements and puts medical ethics in the back seat.
Concerns about the doctorate were first raised by Dr. Kirk Allison, director of the program in Human Rights and Health at the University of Minnesota, in a public letter that was cosigned by 21 other experts.
The letter acknowledges the work of Dr. Chen Zhu, the Chinese minister of health since 2007, on leukemia research and public health initiatives, but continues, “Unfortunately, Minister Chen also presides over a transplantation system relying primarily on executions for organs.”
The letter notes that death row prisoners and prisoners of conscience, such as practitioners of Falun Gong, are targeted for organ harvesting for transplant in China, where for cultural reasons ordinary citizens are usually unwilling to donate organs. Organs removed from prisoners of conscience and others are then sold to transplant tourists or wealthy Chinese, and the victims die. The letter describes the use of executed prisoners as an organ source as “morally reprehensible.”
Giving Chen an award while executions for organs continue, under the supposed authority of the Ministry of Health, would “dishonor the victims of this horrific system,” the letter says.
In a defense of the award sent to Allison on Oct. 2, Eric W. Kaler, president of the University of Minnesota, referred to reasons for nomination that did not include reference to organ transplants: Minister Chen’s leukemia research and public health work.
But the rationale for the nomination had apparently changed by the following week. On Monday, Oct. 8, a defense of the award sent to journalists by the university’s press office said the doctorate was “not just for [Chen’s] efforts in reforming the Chinese transplantation system.”
In a further explanation of the award, and a rebuttal to Allison’s letter, the note said that Allison had “mischaracterize[d] the efforts of the Chinese Ministry of Health to reform China’s transplant policy,” and listed a series of reform measures that Chen has overseen since 2007.
These include the requirement that prisoners provide informed consent before their organs are removed upon death, and a pilot program, liver registry, and other efforts to expand the organ sources to willing donors from the broader population, rather than simply executed prisoners, or prisoners of conscience who are killed for their organs in an extrajudicial process.
These initiatives, however, haven’t stopped the flow of illicit organs, according to experts who reviewed the university’s defense of the award.
“He has been Minister of Health since 2007. That is at least five years of confirmed organ harvesting of prisoners on a large scale,” said Dr. Damon Noto, a spokesman for the medical advocacy group Doctors Against Forced Organ Harvesting. Noto testified on the topic before a U.S. congressional hearing in September.
“If it is really solved, why don’t they open up to the rest of the medical community to verify that this is no longer taking place?” Noto wrote in an email response. “People are losing their lives under the watch of this minister of health. Reform or not, he has to assume some sort of responsibility.”
Dr. John Lake, director of the Liver Transplant Program at the University of Minnesota, was a strong supporter of Chen’s visit to the university, and of the award. He described Chen and his deputy Huang Jiefu as “courageous” in carrying out organ transplant reform in China. He said that the abuses that concern Allison and others were being dealt with.
Attempts to defend Chen’s efforts on organ transplantation reform, however, fail to address the deeply political reasons behind how organs are acquired in China, according to David Matas, a human rights lawyer based in Canada. Matas co-authored the seminal report on organ harvesting from Falun Gong practitioners, Bloody Harvest, published in 2006, and is the co-editor of the 2012 volume State Organs: Transplant Abuse in China.
The defense of Chen is “insensitive to the nature of the Chinese system,” Matas said, where the medical-military complex and the security forces work hand in hand, often in an extrajudicial manner, to harvest political prisoners for their organs. “Standards and laws do not mean that much in that context.”
Huang Jiefu, the vice minister of health, himself said as much to the World Medical Association, according to Matas. Huang had told the WMA that he did not have the “political support” to change the practice of harvesting organs from prisoners.
“What’s the politics?” Matas asked rhetorically. “It’s obviously the desire to repress the Falun Gong. Huang doesn’t say ‘This is wrong, I’m not going along with it,’ but instead he says: ‘OK, this is wrong, I’ll try what I can.’ To me this is complicity.”
Chen Zhu and Huang Jiefu are in charge of the system, and the security apparatus should have nothing to do with it, but “that’s not the way the system runs in China,” Matas says. “I don’t think the university realizes that.”
Whatever the details in China, Chen’s honorary degree appears very helpful to relations between the University of Minnesota and China. During the symposium Chen spoke about a variety of possibilities for future collaboration with the university and other American institutions, including partnerships involving American wholly owned medical institutions in China, and collaborative research projects, according to an individual who attended.
“There’s a kind of economy of honorary degrees,” Kirk Allison said. “It’s a way of expanding a relationship between that person and the institution granting it.” He thought the degree given to Chen was “shall we say, advantageous in that sense.”
The university’s Office of the President was asked whether the award to Minister Chen would enhance relations between the university and China. “I would assume so,” a media representative said off the cuff, before seeking out a formal response from the President’s Office. That response never came.
In the context of forging such ties, questions of human rights and organ harvesting from prisoners of conscience become “an uncomfortable topic,” Allison said.
In an email response to the Board of Regents of the University of Minnesota, who wrote to Allison about his concerns with the award, Allison concluded an email with the sentence: “When histories of relations with China are written, this honorary doctorate will, unfortunately, not be a point of honor for either China or the university.”