When Zhao Jinquan heard he could make money by selling his kidney, he thought it was the opportunity of a lifetime. And for a desperately ill Wang Dexin, suffering from kidney failure, it offered a rare chance at living longer himself.
Zhao told the Beijing Haidian District Court in May that he was eager to sell his kidney because he wanted to pay off a debt. Desperate for money, Zhao contacted an organ agent, who referred him to Cai Shaohua.
Cai was an organ broker in Beijing, who solicited business by distributing his business card among patients at kidney dialysis units around the capital, says Caixin.
Coincidentally, when Zhao came calling, Cai was looking for a kidney for his client Wang.
After a series of tests, Zhao was found to match Wang’s blood type. Cai quickly went to work: forging an ID card and other official documents so that Zhao could assume an identity as Wang’s son. In China, only a patient’s spouse and relatives are allowed to donate organs to the patient.
The operation, which took place in May last year, was successful. Afterwards, Wang paid Rmb135,000 ($19,710) to Cai. Zhao received Rmb40,000, about the price of a long-haul business class air fare. And Cai made a profit of Rmb20,000 after paying the donor, various middlemen and the hospital.
Cai, however, was arrested by Beijing police in May last year. He allegedly coordinated kidney sales worth a combined Rmb580,000 for four organ recipients between March and May 2009 – while he pocketed a personal profit of Rmb100,000. He is now being charged with organ trafficking and counterfeiting official seals, and faces up to 15 years in prison.
Like many developing countries, China’s human organ market is largely made up of impoverished sellers, ailing customers and predatory middlemen. As people live longer, queues for organ transplants are lengthening too.
But organ trading is banned in China. Supply largely depends on donations from living donors to blood relatives and spouses. In the case of kidneys, many of the donated organs come from executed criminals. China has more of those than most; but demand still far outstrips supply.
Official statistics show that about a million people need transplants every year but that only 1% of that number receives the organs needed.
In an effort to regulate the procedure of organ transplant in the country, China’s health authorities announced last week that they will require medical centres to report each case of organ transplant within 72 hours of the operation, says the China Daily.
Authorities say the new rules make it harder for hospitals to fool authorities by handing in false information about donors and recipients. On-site inspections – made after the information has been submitted – will also make it easier to uncover malpractice, says Qian Jianmin, chief transplant surgeon with the Shanghai Huashan Hospital.
While the new rules should crackdown on illegal organ trafficking, experts say they will not solve the supply problem (in fact, they will likely worsen it for the foreseeable future). Unless supply increases, says Beijing Evening News, the chances of people dying while waiting for a donor will increase. The black market for organs will continue to flourish too.
The problem, critics say, is that there is little public awareness of organ donation. Until recently, China had no donation network. A pilot programme now allows people to consent to body part donation in event of their death.
Meanwhile Cai, who is awaiting trial, has been arguing his own case. While money initially motivated him to engage in the illegal trade, he says he also came to be moved by the chance to help strangers.
“I thought providing a source of kidneys for patients was a good deed,” Cai laments. “It saves people’s lives.”
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