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Tuesday, February 24, 1998 Published at 15:53 GMT

image: [ BBC Chinese Affairs Analyst, James Miles ]James Miles
BBC's Chinese Affairs Analyst

Two Chinese nationals in New York have been arrested for allegedly attempting to sell body organs from executed Chinese prisoners for transplant operations. The BBC's Chinese Affairs Analyst, James Miles, says the case is likely to be an embarrassment to China.

China executes more prisoners than any other country in the world. At least 6,000 convicts a year are shot, according to totals compiled from accounts of executions in the official Chinese press. But some executions go unreported.

In China there is deep cultural prejudice against donating organs. So it's not surprising that the medical profession should look to executed prisoners as a possible source for its transplant needs. Chinese officials say that the organs of executed prisoners are occasionally used, but only with the prior consent of the convicts or their families. Western human rights groups, though, say the practice is far more widespread than China admits, and that consent is rarely sought.

The arrest of two Chinese nationals in New York -- one of them a former state prosecutor from the southern province of Hainan -- on charges of attempting to sell the organs of executed prisoners, has been welcomed by Harry Wu, a Chinese dissident living in the United States.

He said: "I think this is a milestone, because it's the first time we have a breakthrough case that the Chinese official particularly is prosecuted today in a foreign country selling organs from executed prisoners."

It was after a tip-off from Mr Wu that the FBI mounted their operation. According to the New York Times, Wu says he secretly videotaped a meeting with the former Chinese prosecutor who, he says, offered him access to the organs of at least 50 executed prisoners in Hainan Province every year. These organs would be used for transplants in Chinese hospitals at considerably lower prices than American hospitals would charge.

Mr Wu says offering transplants to foreigners using organs from executed convicts is regarded by some Chinese hospitals as a major source of revenue, and, in spite of official denials, this business is carried on with Beijing's support.

He added: "If the Chinese government don't have the national policy, the policy said that the government have the right to remove the organs from the death row prisoners, if they don't have the policy such as this, no-one would be able to remove the organ from the death row prisoners."

Selling organs is against the law in China. But the country's rapid moves toward setting up a market economy are putting increasing pressure on state-run institutions to show a profit. This makes it even more likely that hospitals would try to increase their revenue by attracting foreign transplant patients.

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