China’s New Year’s Resolution: No More Harvesting Executed Prisoners’ Organs

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WATCH 1997: ABC News Undercover 'Blood Money' Investigation

China appears set today to end its controversial, decades-long practice of harvesting organs from the bodies of prisoners executed by the state, according to state-run media.

“Starting from January 1, China will end its reliance on the organs of executed prisoners for transplantation,” the Chinese vice minister of health said in early December in a rare admission of the long-secret practice. "Organ donations will only come from the public and voluntary organ donations will become the only organ donation source.”

But Sophie Richardson, China Director for Human Rights Watch, was skeptical the Government pronouncement would bring about any real change.

“HRW welcomes this policy, but as is the case with many good-on-paper commitments, regulations, and laws in China, whether it's really upheld remains to be seen,” Richardson told ABC News.

“There are considerable economic interests in the organ trade that are to a large extent unaddressed by this policy, and the government's willingness to discipline those in official positions -- be they prison guards or administrators or doctors -- who violate such policies is scant. And all of this takes place against a backdrop of extremely weak protections for prisoners,” she said.

ABC News’ Chief Investigative Correspondent Brian Ross and producer Rhonda Schwartz first exposed the illegal black market sale of kidneys from executed Chinese prisoners in a hidden camera investigation broadcast on ABC's Prime Time Live in 1997. In that report, a Chinese doctor was caught on camera accepting a cash payment of $5,000 in exchange for helping to arrange a kidney transplant from a prisoner at a Chinese military hospital. The story also included rare, never-before-seen footage of Chinese prisoners executed by a firing squad.

Following the ABC News report, the U.S. government put black market kidney sales on their list of human rights issues cited in their annual report and raised in diplomatic discussions with the Chinese government.

But real progress in stopping both the summary public executions and the subsequent organ transplants has been slow in coming, Richardson said.

Customers for the black market in kidneys came as far as the United States, where the ABC News team found advertisements for kidneys in Chinese language newspapers. But the largest number of customers was believed to come from within China and neighboring Asian countries, according to recent news reports from the region.

In announcing the policy change in early December – to take effect the first day of the Western new year, though the Chinese New Year isn’t until February -- the Chinese government minister also acknowledged a dramatic shortage of donated kidneys available for transplant, according to China Global Times.

Demand for organs in China far exceeds the supply, with the ratio of public organ donations being 0.6 to 100,000 people, said Huang in the Dec. 3 meeting.

According to state media, since 2010 there have only been about 3,000 public organ donations, out of a total of about 8,000 organs. Additionally, there are 300,000 patients on the waiting list for a transplant, while only around 10,000 surgeries take place each year.

Part of the problem, according to experts, could be philosophical.

“Asian cultures, especially Confucian cultures, have a strong cultural bend against donating organs,” said John Kamm, the Executive Director of Dui Hua, a China-focused human rights group based in San Francisco.

Kamm and Paul Goldin, the University of Pennsylvania’s professor of Chinese Thought, said they think that the Chinese government has attempted to control these beliefs and that the younger generations are less traditional, but they could still have an impact.

“The issue with organ donorship [sic] is that it destroys the body and an intact body would be crucial for the afterlife… It could be a more eternal punishment,” Goldin said of the Confucian tradition.

Huang told state media that despite these cultural stigmas, he was optimistic that the increasing number of public organ donations would be enough to satisfy the demand.

Gordon Chang, author of “The Coming Collapse of China,” thinks that this change in policy maybe a result of a shift in the Chinese value system.

“It shows a bottom-up pressure from Chinese society, which has forced the government to take action,” Chang said.

Representatives at China’s Ministry of Health and Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not respond to requests for comment on this report.