China's Health Ministry said it is starting the government's first nationwide organ donation system in an attempt to move away from the practice of harvesting organs from executed prisoners.
The program, which will be operated jointly with the Red Cross Society of China, will have a database in which people can stipulate that their organs be donated after death, according to Wednesday's China Daily.
In a rare acknowledgment of a practice that has until recently been shrouded in secrecy, the state-run newspaper said 65% of organ donors were executed prisoners. Huang Jiefu, vice minister of health, was quoted as saying that prisoners "are definitely not a proper source for organ transplant."
Nicholas Bequelin, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, was skeptical that China would stop the practice.
"Certainly, it is a step in the right direction to set up an national organ donation system, but there are powerful vested interests that will constrain reform," he said from Hong Kong.
China is believed to conduct more judicial executions than all other countries combined; Amnesty International put the 2008 tally at 1,718.
Prisoners sentenced to death undergo extensive blood tests for matching with potential organ recipients and are given injections to inhibit blood clotting and other treatments to improve the chances of successful transplants. After execution, the bodies are usually stripped of corneas, livers, kidneys and other organs.
Though in theory prisoners give their consent, Bequelin said, "we don't believe those who sign are in a position to give free and informed consent."
Before the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, the Chinese government was chagrined by widespread publicity about buyers coming from abroad in search of organs. China tightened laws governing the private sale of organs and shut down websites advertising services as middlemen.
This year, the government opened an investigation into 17 Japanese who obtained livers or kidneys in China for an average price of $87,000 each.
Huang, the vice minister, was quoted as saying that the new database was designed to make organs available to the approximately 1 million Chinese waiting for transplants.
The database is to begin as a pilot project in some areas, including Shanghai.