China has announced that it will stop harvesting the organs of executed prisoners in time for the New Year.
Chinese state media reported Thursday that the government has vowed to end the practice by January 1, 2015, and that future use of organs belonging to death row prisoners will be restricted to those that inmates voluntarily donate. Their families must also approve the decision.
The announcement has been welcomed internationally, though questions have also been raised about how the country will now source organs, given that demand already outstrips supply.
The head of China's organ donation committee, Huang Jiefu, estimated this week that 300,000 Chinese citizens are in urgent need of organ transplants each year, but that this year, only 1,500 citizens voluntarily donated organs. In 2011, state officials estimated that condemned prisoners provided China with about 64 percent of its organs for transplant.
Huang said that the low donation rate was partially a result of cultural beliefs, but also arose from fear of corruption in the system.
"People's concerns over whether organ donation can be carried out in a fair, just and open manner are also an important reason why it has been so hard for the cause to advance," he said, according to the Guardian.
For many years, the Chinese government publically denied that the country was harvesting the organs of executed prisoners, until mounting evidence eventually forced an admission in 1991. A 1994 Human Rights Watch (HRW) report documented the systematic practice, often made without the consent of prisoners, even though that consent was required by law.
"In some cases, prisoners and their families are not even informed that the organs will be removed, although in others the families are given cash payments," HRW found.
The report added that, "some executions are even deliberately mishandled to ensure that the prisoners are not yet dead when their organs are removed."
In 2012, Haibo Wang, director of the China Organ Transplant Response System Research Center of the Chinese Ministry of Health, said that historically, many major transplant countries had used the organs of executed prisoners while their organ transplant systems were developing, but "with social progress, this unethical practice was abandoned."
"While we cannot deny the executed prisoner's right to donate organs, an organ transplantation system relying on death row prisoners' organs is not ethical or sustainable," he said.
William Nee, a researcher for Amnesty International, told VICE News that China's ending of organ harvesting from executed prisoners is "definitely progress."
But, "China needs to become more open and more transparent around their use of the death penalty in general," Nee said. Otherwise, "It could be difficult to actually verify to what extent they're seeing through this promise."
Nee said that China doesn't reveal figures on death penalty sentences, or how many people are executed each year — information that is considered a "state secret."
Nee also said Chinese prisoners are routinely subjected to cruel conditions in a largely secretive prison system. An Amnesty report released in September this year detailed interviews with former inmates who claimed to have been subjected to electrocution, sleep deprivation, and psychological torture.
When asked whether he thought that China announced the policy change in response to international pressure or whether it was spurred by a renewed view of the practice as "unethical," Nee said: "It's probably both."
"I think that they have been under a lot of international pressure and I think that that pressure has been effective," he said. "At the same time, I think that there are good people working within the system in China who probably have wanted to make reforms… I'd say there's a humane motivation there."
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