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  • Writer's pictureDurham Pro Bono Blog

Illegal Organ Harvesting in China

Disclaimer: The views expressed are that of the individual author. All rights are reserved to the original authors of the materials consulted, which are identified in the footnotes below.

By Tabatha Baylis

Never Let Me Go

In 2005, Kazuo Ishiguro published “Never Let Me Go”, a novel that explored the concept of mass organ harvesting via raising clones in prison-like institutions. Being shortlisted for the Booker Prize, many noted how the novel captured the national anxieties of Ishiguro’s time regarding the ethical implications of the growing demands on healthcare. As human lifespans grow longer, it has become uncomfortably clear: in order for someone to live, someone else has to die.

Organ Harvesting in China

The question of the value of human life, or more accurately, who gets to live or die, may have also been on the mind of Chinese doctors who were caught illegally harvesting the organs of hospital patients.[1] This incident involved four high-ranking doctors, who targeted car crash victims and patients who suffered from cerebral haemorrhage at the Huaiyuan County People’s Hospital in Anhui. According to the local media, this particular trafficking ring involved doctors tricking the families of victims into signing fake consent forms, and afterwards the victims would be transported away from the hospital and have their organs taken out. The organs would then be sold to “other hospitals or individuals” which members of the trafficking ring contacted.[2]

However, this incident was treated as an isolated issue, one that was easily rectified by the doctors involved being prosecuted and sentenced. The more disturbing fact, one that is eerily similar to Ishiguro’s novel, is that the real large-scale organ trafficking is taking place in prisons where these doctors reside in. In 2019, an international tribunal sitting in London concluded that the organs of members of marginalised groups detained in Chinese prison camps are being forcefully harvested.[3] Sometimes, this will occur even when the victims are still alive. The main source of these organs are Falun Gong practitioners, a practice that has been deemed “evil” and a “cancer” by the Chinese government.[4]

These detainees, which number over 1.5 million, are being used in order to offset China’s growing demand for fresh organs, one that they have always struggled to supplant with legitimate donations. This “booming” transplant trade is worth around $1 billion a year, according to the China Tribunal.[5] It is also possible that Uighur Muslims, an intensely persecuted ethnic minority within China, are also being targeted. The tribunal has additionally warned that the scale of medical testing enacted upon Uighur Muslims meant that they could potentially be used as an “organ bank”.[6] Such things make Ishiguro’s novel, a work of science fiction, look humane in comparison, a disturbing thought in its own right.

Suspicions of forced organ harvesting were raised in 2001, after a boom in transplant activity was noticed in China, along with remarkably short wait times. Chinese websites “advertised hearts, lungs and kidneys for sale and available to book in advance”, something only possible if these victims were kept alive and then killed on demand. The tribunal concluded that there was “numerical evidence” of the “impossibility of there being anything like sufficient ‘eligible donors’ under the recently formed People’s Republic of China voluntary donor scheme for that number of transplant operations”.[7] China’s latest figures show that 20,201 patients received organ transplants in 2018 from around 6,302 donors. The range accepted by the tribunal, on the other hand, is between 60,000 and 90,000 transplants a year,[8] a more accurate reflection of China’s capacity to perform transplant operations. These figures come from a 2016 report, Bloody Harvest / The Slaughter, by human rights lawyer David Kilgour, former Canadian politician David Matas, and US investigator Ethan Gutmann. Their estimates are based on bed and staff numbers, and likely activity, pulled from Chinese hospital websites, media reports and academic papers before (and a short time after) the 2015 ban.

No Justice for Victims of Organ Harvesting

Despite the findings of this tribunal, there has been very little outcry from either the media or the international community regarding this blatant and dangerous abuse of human rights. Apart from a token few media articles covering the issue, there has been no real backlash against China, and this has likely encouraged them to make minimal efforts to curtail the practice. In March 2020, a year after the tribunal released its final judgment, it was published that Chinese hospitals admitted that harvested organs were still available from Falun Gong detainees.[9] Whilst state media has previously reported that China is planning to phase out the practice of taking organs from executed prisoners, this was in 2012,[10] and the evidence points to the situation only getting worse. It is also claimed by doctors in China that voluntary donation is now the sole legal source of organs post-2015. It seems that, like many other human rights issues, the persecution of minority groups in China via organ harvesting will be forgotten, swept away by more topical concerns.


Image: by Fu Zhiyong in Saphora Smith, ‘China forcefully harvests organs from detainees, tribunal concludes’ NBC News (18 June 2019) <> accessed 24 February 2021

[1] ‘Chinese doctors jailed for illegal organ harvesting’ BBC News (27 November 2020) <> accessed 24 February 2021 [2] ibid [3] The China Tribunal, ‘About ETAC’ <> accessed 24 February 2021 [4] J.Y., ‘What is Falun Gong?’ (Hong Kong, 5 September 2018) <> accessed 24 February 2021 [5] The China Tribunal (n 3) [6] ibid [7] ibid [8] ‘At what price?’ (BMA, 9 April 2020) <> accessed 24 February 2021 [9] BMJ, ‘Chinese doctors admitted in undercover calls that harvested organs were available, informal tribunal finds’ (The BMJ, 3 March 2020) <> accessed 24 February 2021 [10] ‘China to phase out prisoner organ donation’ NBC News (26 March 2012) <> accessed 24 February 2021

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