Ending 'Vampire' Tourism in China

Did Beijing just take China off the “vampire” tourism circuit? And end state-sanctioned mass murder?

Last Wednesday, the official China Daily reported the launch of pilot projects in ten areas that will eventually lead to a nationwide organ-donation system. The system is intended to stop “transplant tourism,” which in recent years has created an outcry among Chinese citizens who have seen foreign “vampires” troll their country for body parts, easily outbidding locals for transplants.

Health Vice-Minister Huang Jiefu, at the time he announced the pilot projects, indicated that China is getting out of the business of taking organs from executed prisoners. Such individuals, Huang said, are “definitely not a proper source for organ transplants.”

If officials stop taking kidneys and livers from the corpses of the executed, there will be no Chinese organs available to anyone, whether foreign tourist or Chinese citizen. China Daily, in a statement that caught the world’s attention, noted that 65 percent of donors are executed prisoners. That was a surprising admission, but the real figure is somewhere over 99 percent.

That’s the conclusion of one of China’s leading transplant surgeons, Chen Zhonghua of Tongji Hospital in the central city of Wuhan. But you don’t need to be an eminent doctor to come to this conclusion. By the end of last year, Vice-Minister Huang said Chinese hospitals had performed 102,342 organ transplants. Yet since 2003, only 130 people signed up to be donors. There are also donations from relatives and others -- supposedly strictly controlled by law -- but the remainder of the organs had to come from somewhere.

“Once a court agrees,the doctors can go to the execution field, wait in a sterile van, and harvest the organ right after the execution,” said one transplant doctor to Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post in 2006. “Such experiences are a severe moral and mental shock to many surgeons, because the prisoners do not usually die immediately after they are shot. But surgeons have to act quickly to get the organs due to freshness requirements.” As this transplant surgeon explained, “To some extent, the doctors are part of the execution.”

Just “some extent”? Doctors are in fact killing individuals for their organs, and the Chinese state is participating in nothing less than mass murder. Amnesty International reports there were 1,718 reported executions in China last year. Observers state that most executions are not reported and that the real annual number is closer to 6,000. This is a ghastly practice -- perhaps “enterprise” is a better term -- that goes on year after year after year.

The Chinese central government’s pilot plan, unfortunately, is dead on arrival. Why? Some have pointed out that, culturally, the Chinese believe it is important to keep the body together after death. That is why eunuchs in imperial China kept their dismembered organs in jars so that they could be buried whole. Yet, as powerful as culture is, there are more powerful reasons why organ-donation plans will take a long time to catch on in the People’s Republic.

For one thing, ordinary Chinese know they are signing their own death warrants if they scribble their names on organ-donor cards. As it is, China’s hospitals are death houses. To boost profitability, Chinese doctors, as a matter of routine, perform unnecessary surgeries, prolong hospital stays, and prescribe unneeded medicines. The Chinese rightly believe that if patients give consent to doctors to take organs after death, the doctors will be tempted to kill them or allow them to die. Already, the organ trade is lucrative, but it will be incredibly so if the state means what it says about not harvesting organs from the newly executed.

The lack of trust between doctor and patient is just part of a broader issue in Chinese society. Citizens adored -- and therefore trusted -- Mao Zedong in the early years of the People’s Republic. Yet during the decade-long Cultural Revolution, which began in 1966, neighbors were forced to snitch on their neighbors, husbands turned in their wives, and children reported their parents. The result is that the bond between the people and their leaders was broken and, more important, few Chinese trusted anyone else in society. At the same time, Communist rule sought to destroy the values that held China together for millennia. And on top of this, the Communist Party has become as corrupt as any ruling group in Chinese history and has permitted venality to spread throughout society. Who, in this environment, is going to trust that he or she will receive good medical care after agreeing to donate extremely valuable organs upon death?

Vice-Minister Huang suggested that it might take twenty years to implement his national donor system. He was apparently embarrassed that it could take so long. Yet China will be lucky if it can create a culture of organ donation within just two decades. The Chinese government has profited off the murder of prisoners for their organs, and it will take heroic efforts to eliminate state incentives for murder -- and build trust in Chinese society.