SUSPICIONS ABOUT FORCED ORGAN HARVESTING in China have been around for years. In 2005 a patient with severe heart failure told Dr. Jacob Lavee of Tel Aviv that he was tired of waiting for a heart transplant in Israel and that his insurance company had helped him set up an appointment to have a heart transplant in two weeks’ time in China. Lavee was shocked: In order for a transplant to succeed, the donor has to die less than 24 hours beforehand, and at the time China had no voluntary donor system. How could they ensure the exact date of someone’s death?
Lavee’s patient was the first Israeli to undergo a heart transplant in China, fully reimbursed by his insurance company, and indeed had the surgery on the date promised. Nine more Israeli patients would go to China for transplants; four of them would die in China.
Lavee, who also testified at the China Tribunal, said he then began to research organ transplantation in China and discovered the Chinese government was harvesting the organs of executed prisoners as well as Falun Gong practitioners without their consent. Angered, he began campaigning for the Israeli government to ban its citizens from going to China for organ transplants. In 2008 Israel’s parliament passed the Organ Transplant Law that stopped Israelis from going to China for transplants and banned insurance companies from reimbursing the operations.
By this time China had become a popular destination for patients in need of an organ transplant due to its short wait times: In 2003 one transplant hospital in China advertised that it would take one week to one month to procure a kidney, and if the kidney turned out not to be a suitable match, the hospital could try a transplant with a different kidney one week later, according to a 2006 report by Canadian human rights lawyers David Matas and David Kilgour. In Canada the median waiting time for a kidney in 2003 was 32.5 months.
Chinese officials claim the country performs 10,000 transplants each year. But Matas, Kilgour, and U.S. journalist Ethan Gutmann examined the transplant programs of hundreds of hospitals in China—analyzing bed counts, hospital revenue, surgical personnel, and so forth—and found the number was actually between 60,000 and 100,000. That raises the question: Where do those organs come from?
After the publication of the 2006 report, Chinese officials claimed the organs came from executed prisoners. Then in 2013 it started a nationwide voluntary donor system and by 2015 claimed that it had completely stopped using the organs of executed prisoners.
Lavee said he felt he had scored a victory after Israel’s Organ Transplant Law passed in 2008. For a time, he was able to convince medical professionals to boycott academic events put on by Chinese transplant doctors. But when Huang Jiefu, head of the China National Organ Donation and Transplantation Committee, announced in late 2014 that China had reformed its system, everything changed. Even the Vatican welcomed China back with open arms. “That unfortunately has totally changed the attitude of the international transplant community because now … we see all the Chinese transplant surgeons and physicians coming to international meetings and their papers being published,” Lavee said at the tribunal.
Yet finding holes in the Chinese government’s claims is as simple as looking at the numbers from each possible organ source. First, executed prisoners. Although China’s execution rate is a state secret, the number of executions has decreased after the Chinese government allowed the Supreme People’s Court to review all death sentences in 2007. Dui Hua Foundation, an NGO focused on prisoners in China, estimated that China executed 6,500 people in 2007, versus 2,400 in 2013. If executed prisoners were the only source of organs, the number of transplants would have also gone down.
To imagine that China’s donor rate is 140 times greater than the rates of the United States and other countries that have mature voluntary donor programs is implausible.
Furthermore, researcher Matthew Robertson pointed out some prisoners have hepatitis B or blood-borne illnesses that make their organs ineligible for transplantation. Prisoners sentenced to death are executed seven days later, so again there’s no way to have enough “on-demand” organs strictly from prisoners.
The other organ source beginning in 2013 is from voluntary donors. In 2010 China first started a pilot program in 19 provinces, but it only resulted in a total of 207 donations. But it claimed that when the system expanded nationwide in 2013, voluntary donations made up 23 percent of transplants. Just one year later that jumped to 80 percent, and by 2015 China claimed that all organ transplants are from donations.
Again the numbers don’t add up. While Americans had 140 million registered organ donors in 2017, only 10,284 were eligible—meaning they died and had usable organs—according to a report by Doctors Against Forced Organ Harvesting (DAFOH). That’s less than 0.008 percent of the total pool. In contrast, China claimed 375,000 registered donors that year, and from that 5,146 were eligible donors, a rate of 1.4 percent. To imagine that China’s donor rate is 140 times greater than the rates of the United States and other countries that have mature voluntary donor programs is implausible.
The other possible source is prisoners of conscience, namely Falun Gong practitioners. In 1999, one year before China’s push toward organ transplantation, authorities cracked down on the spiritual group as they felt threatened by the group’s size and independence from the state. Authorities threw hundreds of thousands into extrajudicial detention where they faced torture, forced labor, and, for some, death.
Some family members of Falun Gong practitioners who died in detention say they found their loved ones’ bodies beaten and bruised, with rough stitching on the torsos. Authorities then cremated the bodies without consent.