BEIJING -- China is phasing out its reliance on executed prisoners for donated organs, but an architect of the country's transplant system said Friday that ingrained cultural attitudes are impeding the rise of donations among the general population.
Almost all donated organs in China used to come from executed prisoners. A growing proportion now come from ordinary people, but the government is seeking to eliminate prisoner donations altogether.
However, former vice health minister Huang Jiefu said Friday that there was little hope of changing a requirement that family members give consent before organs are donated, even if a person had expressed a desire to donate.
"China is a Confucian society. It's strongly hierarchical and the family's concerns usually trump those of the individual," said Huang, presently a leader of the national legislature's top advisory body. An objection from even one family member can block a donation, he said.
Chinese have traditionally held that a person's body should be interred intact, and while such attitudes are gradually changing, they remain strong among older Chinese. At the same time, China is cutting down on its reliance on executed prisoners for organs – a practice that Huang called "profit-driven, unethical and violating human rights." Critics have long claimed that standard safeguards were often ignored in the case of obtaining organs from prisoners who may have been pressured to donate.
The use of prisoners' organs was also seen as causing an artificial shortfall in the number of organs available by impeding the promotion of donating among the public as a whole. China suffers from an acute shortage of available organs and Huang said only about 10,000 of the 300,000 Chinese suffering from liver disease will be able to receive transplants. He hopes to raise that number to 100,000 over time. Another 1 million people suffer from kidney ailments, but many can be sustained for lengthy periods on dialysis machines.
China considers the number of annual executions a secret, but most observers estimate the number at 6,000-8,000. It isn't known what proportion of those executed agree to donate their organs.
However, 5,009 liver and kidney transplants performed last year used organs from executed prisoners, out of a total of 7,882 such operations, according to the Health Ministry. By contrast, 2,960 of 2,997 liver transplants performed in 2005 used organs from executed prisoners.
Huang reiterated a projection that reliance on prisoners will be eliminated within about two years of the launch of the nationwide donor network in February.
Related on HuffPost:
A long exposure photograph shows traffic commuting at night near South Korea's landmark Namdaemun gate in Seoul on May 4, 2013. (KIM JAE-HWAN/AFP/Getty Images)
The sun sets on Botafogo bay with the Christ the Reedemer statue on the Corcovado mountain in the background in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on May 5, 2013. (CHRISTOPHE SIMON/AFP/Getty Images)
A boy runs in a field of Iceland poppys in full bloom at Showa Memorial Park in Tokyo on May 6, 2013. (TORU YAMANAKA/AFP/Getty Images)
People pour water on a passer-by in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv on May 6, 2013, as they celebrate Clean Monday (or Wet Monday), a Ukrainian Christian tradition celebrated the first day after Orthodox Easter. (YURIY DYACHYSHYN/AFP/Getty Images)
Belarus Warld War II veterans dance during Victory Day celebration in Minsk, on May 9, 2013. (VIKTOR DRACHEV/AFP/Getty Images)
Competitors take part in the Maldon Mud Race on May 05, 2013 in Maldon, Essex. The race originated in 1973 and involves competitors racing around a course on the mudbanks of the river Blackwater at low tide. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
Swan Lake By Classical Russian Ballet in Madrid
MADRID, SPAIN - MAY 08: A dancer of the Classical Russian Ballet sits on stage before a rehearsal of 'Swan Lake' at Nuevo Apolo Theatre on May 8, 2013 in Madrid, Spain. (Photo by Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images)
A goat of a Kashmiri nomad family looks out of a temporary tent on a foggy morning on the outskirts of Srinagar, India, Tuesday, May 7, 2013. (AP Photo/Dar Yasin)
A Pakistani girl who was displaced with her family from Pakistan's tribal areas due to fighting between militants and the army plays with her brother, near her home in a poor neighborhood on the outskirts of Islamabad, Pakistan, Friday, May 10, 2013. (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)
A worker pulls a huge European Union flag, in Bucharest, Romania, Thursday, May 9, 2013, while installing it in front of the Romanian parliament building, formerly the House of the People, built during the rule of communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. The flag, with a weight of 800 kg and measuring 100 by 140 meters, was sponsored by a private television network and was placed at the parliament to mark Europe Day. Romania joined the European Union in 2007. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)