BEIJING • When a senior Chinese health official said last year that China would stop using prisoners' organs for transplants as of Jan 1, human rights advocates and medical professionals worldwide greeted the news with relief.
It seemed to end a decades-long form of human exploitation in which hundreds, perhaps thousands, of organs of executed prisoners were harvested each year.
But organs from prisoners, including those on death row, can still be used for transplants in China, with the full backing of policymakers, according to Chinese news reports, as well as doctors and medical researchers in China and abroad.
"They just reclassified prisoners as citizens," said Dr Li Huige, a Chinese-born doctor at the University of Mainz in Germany.
The announcement in December by Dr Huang Jiefu, a former deputy health minister and chairman of the National Health and Family Planning Commission's Human Organ and Transplant Committee, was "an administrative trick", said Dr Otmar Kloiber, secretary-general of the World Medical Association.
The association opposes the use of organs from prisoners in any country that has the death penalty, saying there is no way of knowing if such donations are truly voluntary.
In January, the ruling Communist Party's publication People's Daily reported that voluntary donations from citizens had become the sole source of organs for transplant.
It quoted Dr Huang as saying: "Death row prisoners are also citizens, and the law does not deprive them of their right to donate their organs. If death row prisoners are willing to donate their organs to atone for their crimes, then they should be encouraged."
Previously, multiple medical centres operated, often secretly, to procure organs from prisoners or poor migrant workers and supply them to well-connected or wealthy patients, say officials and researchers. Now, the government says it is trying to create a single pool that will be managed fairly, with organs distributed according to medical need.
China began to solicit organs from the public in 2010. In a 2011 article in the medical journal Lancet, Dr Huang said about 65 per cent of transplants in China involved organs from dead donors, of which over 90 per cent were executed prisoners. The rest were from living donors.
When officials said last year they would no longer use prisoners' organs, that meant they would no longer systematically harvest organs from death row inmates, Dr Li said.
Dr Huang "is separating dead prisoners' organs into two groups", Dr Li added. One is the "traditional-style 'I don't care if prisoners agree or not, we'll use them'" which has been illegal since 2007, he said.
That year, a new law on organ transplants banned trafficking in organs and removing them without written consent, without mentioning prisoners. "When he said, 'We will completely stop using prisoners' organs', he meant, stop using that illegal component," Dr Li said.
Many Chinese are reluctant to donate organs because of traditions that believe the body should be buried or cremated intact. There is also an assumption that in a corrupt system, their organs would not be fairly used.
NEW YORK TIMES