CHINA has conceded international pressure before next year's Olympics is behind its latest undertaking to crack down on illegal organ transplants. But uncertainty remains about when the pledge — this time to stop taking organs from executed prisoners except for use in their immediate relatives — will take effect.
State media yesterday reported that the Chinese Medical Association, a semi-government body, reached an agreement with the World Medical Association at a meeting in Copenhagen on Friday, that it will require its 500,000 member doctors to stop harvesting inmates' organs, even with consent, except when needed for a close relative.
China has long been accused of harvesting organs from executed prisoners without consent, but has always denied doing so — even though voluntary organ donation rates are low and the number of transplant operations vastly outnumbers the number of registered donors.
Unscrupulous hospitals are also suspected of illegally taking organs from road crash and other dead patients to fuel a booming international and domestic market in transplants.
The Chinese Medical Association's vice-chairman, Chen Zhonghua, said: "It's still unclear as regards the timetable when this will be implemented, but it is the first time the Chinese side has made such a promise.
"Next year it will be the Olympics. China is worried that if it doesn't take a stance on this, some countries may use this issue as a pretext to boycott the Games," he told the South China Morning Post.Professor Chen said the number of transplants from executed prisoners had dropped significantly this year and the number of live donations from relatives and voluntary donations had increased.
Liu Zhi, of the CMA's international department, said the pledge had no legal effect but he hoped it would influence its 500,000 doctors and Government decision-making.
Sociology professor Xia Xueluan, of Peking University, said China's tightening of organ transplants was not just due to Western pressure but reflected the Government's emphasis on more humane policies.
The State Council, China's cabinet, issued a new law on May 1 prohibiting trade in human organs in any form and specifying all donations must have consent of the donors.
The CMA pledge goes further by specifying that even if prisoners give their consent, only a prisoner's immediate family can have the organs transplanted.
China has also moved to reduce its use of the death penalty.
In the past year, China has restored to the Supreme People's Court the sole right to approve all death sentences, ending a 23-year practice of allowing provincial courts alone to authorise executions.
Although China does not officially release death sentence figures, the numbers appear to have been reducing since 2001 when Amnesty International estimated that China executed at least 2500 people (and issued more than 4000 death sentences). Amnesty says China executed at least 1770 people in 2005, about 80 per cent of the world's total, but says the true number may be much higher.