China's organ transplant scandal

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KATY CLARK: I'm Katy Clark, and this is The World. China has long been accused of a ghoulish practice � harvesting organs from executed prisoners. Today, a state-run newspaper appeared to confirm that. It said dead prisoners supplied almost two-thirds of the human organs used in transplants in China, and it quoted a government official saying that's not a good thing. So China today launched a system to encourage ordinary citizens to become donors � an idea that has yet to catch on. The World's Mary Kay Magistad reports.

MARY KAY MAGISTAD: When former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping died a dozen years ago, Chinese who tuned in to his funeral heard that Deng had donated his corneas to an eye bank, and other body parts to medical research. That bucked Chinese tradition of keeping the body intact, but if Deng was trying to set an example, it hasn't really worked. The Ministry of Health says about a million and a half Chinese need organ transplants each year, but just 10,000 or so get them. Meanwhile, wealthy foreigners with cash in hand come to China to get the organs they need. This was an undercover BBC report by correspondent Rupert Wingfield-Hayes. Three years ago, he went to a hospital in Tianjin, saying he needed a liver for his ailing father. The chief surgeon told him, �Sure. Pay $75,000 dollars to a Hong Kong bank account, and we can do the transplant in three weeks.� Wingfield-Hayes said he heard the organs came from executed prisoners. �Yes, it's true,� the doctor said. �These people did bad things, and now they're giving their organs as a present for society.� In recent months, China has banned organ transplant tourism, and today it announced a program encouraging people to become organ donors. The Ministry of Health and Chinese Red Cross are also setting up a fund to provide aid to donors' families, and the Ministry of Health says China should move away from using executed prisoners as organ donors. Sophie Richardson, the Asia Advocacy Director for Human Rights Watch, says there's good reason for that.

SOPHIE RICHARDSON: There are still such serious problems, you know, with the completely opaque death penalty system. In which there are no official statistics on the numbers of people executed. But there's no way of checking to see if prisoners were actually given the opportunity to provide fully informed consent for post-execution organ donation.

MAGISTAD: Richardson says the new initiative is a positive step in theory, but it all depends on how the system is run, how transparent it genuinely is, and how serious it will be in clamping down on organ trafficking. There's also, of course, the question of how to persuade a reluctant public to change age-old views on organ donation, and whether that can happen fast enough to remove the temptation to use a backdoor -- and dead prisoners. For The World, I'm Mary Kay Magistad, in Beijing.