A flourishing black market for organs in China

Guo Bin, a six-year-old boy from Shanxi province, in northern China, thought the sky had gone permanently dark when he woke up, one day this summer, bloody-faced and crying near his parents’ home. “We originally thought he had fallen down and smashed his face,” Guo’s father, a farmer, told a local television station. “We didn’t notice that his eyes were gone when we first discovered him.” But then he saw that there were only pits where his son’s eyeballs should have been. The boy told his mother that the last words spoken to him by the still-unidentified woman who kidnapped and drugged him were “Don’t cry, and I won’t gouge your eyes out.”

Immediately after news of the savage assault broke, an apprehensive public leapt to the conclusion that the perpetrators were driven by an obvious motive: they robbed a child of his sight to turn a quick profit in China’s thriving black market for organs. The story quickly became national news and sparked an uproar on Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter, where, months later, citizens have not stopped clamoring for redress. Everywhere in the world, the number of patients in need of kidneys, hearts, livers, or corneas outstrips the number of donors, but in China the situation is particularly acute. Even though China performs more transplants annually than any country except the United States, less than one per cent of the population in need of life-saving transplants receives them (as compared to about twenty per cent in the United States). According to China’s Ministry of Health, some 1.5 million people continue to wait for transplants.

Traditional Chinese customs calling for bodies to be buried or cremated intact (so that a person may be reincarnated whole) discourage individuals from donating their organs. For the past three decades, the government has tried to make up the difference by harvesting organs from executed prisoners. Until 2007, nine-tenths of the country’s organ supply came from its tens of thousands of death-row inmates, whose executions have sometimes been expedited for the purpose of harvesting organs. For many years, Chinese authorities refused to acknowledge this practice, though a 2006 investigation conducted by two Canadians—David Kilgour, a member of parliament, and David Matas, a human-rights lawyer—concluded that the selling of prisoners’ organs without their consent was a “billion-dollar business in China.”