Examining China’s Organ Transplantation System: The Nexus of Security, Medicine, and Predation / Part 2: Evidence for the Harvesting of Organs from Prisoners of Conscience


Part 1 of this series profiled the dramatic growth of the organ transplantation infrastructure in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) since the year 2000, and also detailed the difficulty in plausibly explaining the sourcing of organs on a scale that could support such a large system. The discrepancies between the observed growth of China’s transplant sector, and official explanations regarding the organ supply necessary to support a system of such scale, have raised significant questions as to the source of these organs. These discrepancies lead to the need for an alternate explanation, and into this breach a range of theories have been proposed: to include rogue doctors operating organ trafficking gangs (Associated Press, March 15, 2018), and voluntary sales of kidneys for iPads and other consumer electronics (BBC, April 6, 2012).

Reaching a judgment as to the source of this large supply of human organs requires evaluating competing hypotheses and making a judgement as to which is the most plausible. One of the most plausible—and disturbing—explanations is that prisoners of conscience in the PRC have been medically tested on a systematic basis while incarcerated, and subsequently executed in order to harvest organs that can be monetized for substantial profits by Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officials (China Tribunal, March 1). Incarcerated persons represent the only population that can plausibly explain the sourcing of healthy organs on the scale observed in China’s transplant sector: these persons are held in captivity; pre-screened for organ function, health, blood-type, and (for kidney transplants) tissue-type; and they are available to be executed on demand. Furthermore, the generally higher state of health found among prisoners of conscience may make them more desirable as an organ source, as compared to regular criminal inmates—who are more likely to be affected by health issues such as drug abuse. When examining possible captive populations, prisoners of conscience are among the most numerous, suitable, and vulnerable.

Analysis of PRC transplant data, as well as admissions by officials, suggests that tens of thousands of transplants take place in China annually (VOC Appendix 4, March 10). Death row prisoners are only estimated to number a few thousand, and only a portion of them would make suitable donors. The size of the voluntary donation system at present is unclear, but the systematic falsification of data (see discussion further below) suggests that it must be much smaller than claimed—meaning that there is still a gap in transplant volume that has not been explained.

Read in The China Brief