Courtesy Hu Jie
Hu Jie seen in a photo taken in Guangzhou, China in May 2010, months before his kidney was removed.
BEIJING – Until recently 26-year-old Hu Jie led a life similar to millions of other young Chinese migrant workers. With little formal education, he worked as a welder in the manufacturing center of Panyu, a city in China’s southern province of Guangdong. He made $400 a month.
But last October Hu became addicted to poker, gambling with friends, and soon lost almost $3,000. Under pressure from his creditors to pay back the high-interest debt, Hu came up with an idea of how he could get money quickly: sell his kidney.
The initial process was fairly easy: He searched online, found dozens of middlemen in China’s shady “organ transplant business” and decided to contact one of them who seemed trustworthy.
Later that month he met with a middleman in eastern Shandong province, more than 1,000 miles away from his home. In a hotel Hu saw not only the middleman, but also a few other young men who also desperately needed cash and were ready to sell their kidneys. They were each offered $6,000 for one kidney.
Hu passed an initial medical exam and his information was soon posted online for buyers to match.
But then he suddenly became seized by terror at the thought of losing an organ. So he ran away – back to Guangdong.
Not so fast
In the following months the middleman continued to call him and scold him for running away. Pressured by the middlemen’s constant calls and his own thirst for cash, Hu made up his mind to go to Shanxi province to meet the prospective buyer, a patient suffering from kidney failure, as well as another middleman.
The second middleman turned out to be a young man who had just sold his kidney two months earlier. During the days they spent together Hu saw him constantly moaning in pain. Terrified by seeing the horrendous aftermath, Hu says he told the middlemen he didn’t want to go through with the surgery.
Courtesy Hu Jie
The scar left on Hu Jie's left abdomen after his kidney was removed.
But it was too late. His unwillingness and protests were to no avail; he was being watched constantly by the middlemen. When he tried to leave the grungy local hospital in Linfen, Shanxi province where the kidney recipient was staying, some of the middlemen’s henchmen were at the hospital gates and forced him into an operating room on Jan. 6, 2011.
When Hu Jie woke up from the anesthesia, everyone was gone except for a nurse. Also missing was his left kidney. All that was left behind was a long scar on his left abdomen and $4,000 in his bank account. (The middlemen stiffed him and took the additional $2,000 he was initially offered for the kidney).
He later learned that the patient had paid $47,000 for the transplant. And when he tried to contact the middlemen again, he found their cell phones turned off.
“It was my fault too, why did I go?” Hu said in an interview with NBC News. “I was still working on that morning and I was forced to the surgery room in the afternoon. I regretted and cried but I was too weak.”
Underground organ market
Organ transplant remains a chaotic yet secretive market in China. Several doctors and other medical experts declined interview requests on account that it was a “sensitive” topic.
Each year, more than 1 million people in China need organ transplants, but only 1 percent get the organs they need, according to official statistics cited in the state-run China Daily.
Executed criminals have long been used as a source for organ transplants, but since a 2007 ruling by China’s Supreme Court decided all death penalty executions must be approved by the Supreme Court in Beijing – the number of executions has dropped dramatically – so has the supply of organs.
The gap between supply and demand has spawned a gigantic underground market for body parts. Search “kidney source” or “liver source” on Baidu.com, the major search engine in China, and plenty of “agents” can be found in the illegal but very open Internet-based body part market. A complete business chain, from donors and receivers to middlemen and hospitals, exists despite China’s “Human Organ Transplant Regulations,” issued in May 2007, which make it illegal for any organizations or individuals to buy or sell human organs.
China’s Ministry of Health implemented very specific regulations for live organ donors in 2009. According to the regulations, the only people eligible to give organ donations are couples who have been married for more than three years or who have children, blood relatives of the patient, or foster parents and foster children.
But the law’s regulation that a live donor must be a spouse or a relative of the organ recipient provides a loophole because agents can easily fake documents and IDs for the donors who pretend to be “relatives.”
“Organ tourism” also made big news a few years ago when “tourists” from developed countries like the U.S., Japan and Saudi Arabia started coming to China for organ transplant operations. The Ministry of Health had to order an investigation in 2009 after the media exposed an “organ transplant tour” by 17 Japanese citizens, and reiterated that Chinese patients must be the priority for such surgeries.
Hospitals are ‘liars’
Despite the illegal nature of the trade and Hu’s admitted role in it, he decided to disclose the whole story.
By now it’s been almost three months since Hu lost his left kidney. He still suffers from constant fatigue and bloody urine and stools.
“All these big hospitals are liars, not only the small ones,” said Hu. “The market is much bigger than you can imagine.”
Hu’s parents, like China’s many timid farmers, don’t want their son to talk to the media out of fear that he will face retaliation. But Hu said he doesn’t really care now, because nothing can be worse than his current situation, he says.
The hospital where his operation was performed is being investigated and one nurse has been arrested. Hu doesn’t know what will happen next.