The arrest of three health care professionals in the central Chinese province of Hubei last month has exposed a grisly nationwide trade in organs for transplant.
Authorities in Bazhou city arrested two doctors and a nurse suspected of dealing in illegal kidney transplants, official media reported on Thursday.
Police burst in on an operation to remove a kidney from a 21-year-old man at a private clinic in Bazhou on Sept. 23, the local iqilu.com news website reported.
They arrested a total of eight people, including surgeon Li Fangjun, retired anesthetist Zhang Xiaowen, and a nurse, who remained unidentified.
All three were retired employees of the Dezhou People's Hospital in the eastern province of Shandong, the report said.
Police have now launched a manhunt for organ dealer Sun Zhigang, and the three Dezhou healthcare workers are assisting them with their inquiries into an organized organ dealing ring.
The report quoted investigating police officer Huang Kai as saying that a kidney can sell for around U.S. $43,300 on the illegal organ market, but that the donor, typically the poorest and least privileged in Chinese society, would receive only around U.S. $3,000.
"The rest is divided among those who participate in the deal, including the organ dealer and the medical staff that helped remove the kidney," yiqilu.com quoted Huang as saying.
The clinic has now been closed.
Many of China's most desperate people use organ donation as a way to raise money that they cannot find elsewhere.
Jiangsu petitioner Xu Nanzhe said she was considering selling a kidney to pay off debts incurred during her long fight to win an inquiry into the death of her daughter in hospital.
Xu said she had seen banners advertising for women to supply kidneys outside Beijing's southern railway station, where thousands of petitioners, the poorest and most downtrodden people in China, are to be found.
"My daughter died as a result of harm done to her by others," Xu said. "Now, they won't do anything about it, and they are covering up the truth."
She said the authorities were still chasing her to pay medical bills. "I told them they'd have to wait until I'd sold a kidney."
The illegal organ trade has become an open secret in today's China, with advertisements clearly visible on the Internet for people wishing to sell kidneys or livers.
Beijing-based rights lawyer Li Fangping said he had heard many stories of such cases during the course of his work.
"There are such stories described by doctors and people like that," Li said. "I have also heard stories like this in private from friends."
"The inside story, such as whether or not they sell the organs of executed prisoners, who buys them, and how they divide up the profits is a bit of a mystery, though," he said.
In 2005, staff at the No. 1 and No. 3 Hospitals affiliated to the prestigious Sun Yat-sen University openly admitted to harvesting the organs of executed prisoners in interviews with RFA's Mandarin service.
Link to prisons
Rights groups have long charged China with a deliberate policy of linking the criminal justice system and local hospitals in an attempt to meet the growing demand for transplants since Chinese hospitals became proficient at performing them in the early 1990s.
They also accuse the authorities of skipping over the question of consent, either with coerced agreements before the prisoner is executed, or simply by cremating the bodies of those executed so no evidence remains.
According to the government, 1.5 million patients are on the waiting list for transplant organs in China in any given year, but willing donors are very thin on the ground.
Hong Kong doctor Gabriel Choi said kidney donation is a very risky business, even when carried out in fully supervised medical facilities.
"You only have two kidneys, and if you lose one, you only have one left," he said. "Any small injury can affect your kidney function and result in your having to go on dialysis or get a transplant yourself."
"It's even more [risky] with your liver," Choi added. "The death rate can be very high in places where the technology isn't up to scratch, especially if the transplant isn't between close relatives."
"The illegal organ trade is rife in two places right now: India and China. This is because they are huge countries with big populations and a large gap between the rich and poor," he said.
Reported by Bi Zimo for RFA's Cantonese service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.