News about kidney for iPhones has brought much media attention to China’s illegal organ trades. Journalists Brother Shanmu and Cao Zongwen supported by the Tencent Charity Foundation went undercover as kidney sellers and disclosed lives in an underground kidney sales ring.
[Source: QQ News]
From May 14 to May 28, 2012, journalists from QQ News went undercover as kidney sellers at an illegal kidney sales network in Huangzhou. They recorded how illegal kidney traders kept connected, how they arranged health checkups and how they found matches for kidney transplants. The kidney sales ring penetrated the entire country, functioning very efficiently like an assembly line. It’s national standard for kidney donors to get 35 thousand yuan (about $5600) for one kidney. The ring has been in operation for more than 4 years. In addition to kidney sales, they also managed a surrogate-mothers service.
The kidney sales ring was located at the Chang Mu Mian Yuan residential community at the crossroad of Linding Road and Tiandu Road in Jianggan District. The place looked so peaceful that no one would image a group of young people who were eagerly selling their kidneys for money were living here. Every year, there are about one million patients with kidney problems in China replying their lives on dialysis. However, in the past year, there were less than 4000 cases of legal kidney transplants in China. Huge demands lead to the boom of underground kidney sales rings. They set up illegal trading networks and harvest windfall profits.
The kidney sales ring moved to the current four-bedroom apartment at Chang Mu Jin Yuan community on April 24, 2012. Three of the bedrooms were for donors, i.e., kidney sellers, with 10 bunk beds and 20 vacancies. The fourth bedroom was for a guy from the scheme. By May 25, 2012, there are a total of 18 donors living in the apartment. The ring even developed a system that worked like a pyramid scheme in which donors were encouraged to introduce their friends into the scheme. If someone introduced by you passed the health checkup, you will get 500 yuan. If his/her completed a transplant, you will get 3000 yuan. The high return lured more and more people in.
Donors came from every corner of the country. Most of them spent their last penny on rail tickets to the kidney sales hub. The ring promised that once the kidney was sold, tickets can be reimbursed. It’s a one-way ticket with no turning-back.
After arriving at the train station, donors needed go through a process that included identity inspection by someone from the scheme, transportion to the apartment for logging, health checkups, signing agreements, blood tests for matching and “delivery”. Such kidney sales rings spread across the country: Beijing, Nanchang, Zhengzhou, Linzi, Zhuangzhou, Donghuan….Some of these rings would take donors’ cell phones and limit their freedom. But every kidney sales ring shares the same terrible food and features the same organ trading that will take away one’s last bit of dignity.
Among the donors living in the apartment, some were talkative, some silent and some stammered. Most of them didn’t want to talk about why they were there. They used silence, cigarettes and jokes to gloss over their unspeakable pains. One who was more open to comments said: “I used to think it’s horrible to sell kidneys. What I didn’t know was that someday I would do it myself.”
Tao was from Hanhui. His parents divorced when he was 7 years old. He said there was never someone who cared about whether he finished his homework at school when he was young, or someone who remembered his birthday at the Chinese New Year even. He’s not afraid of dying on the operating table because, according to him, “All the people I care about don’t care about me. I’m care free. Nothing matters.” But in the end, he said he didn’t have any debts at all. He simply needed money and wanted his loved ones to live a better life.
Ji was from Shijiazhuang. He wanted to sell his kidney for money to buy a Yamaha motorcycle. During the health checkup, the guy from the ring was scared by him because he wore a training t-shirt for policemen. He was OKed after disclosing his tattoos.
Tang (on the upper bed) was born in 1991. He arrived on May 19 and was from Shenzhen. He refused to tell why he ended up here, but would write down all his thoughts and feelings on his laptop. Feng (on the lower bed) was a college student.
Li was born in 1992 and was from Tongwei, Gansu province. He went to Suzhou three days after College Entrance Exam and became a worker on the assembly line in a cell phone case factory. Earlier this year, He flung a co-worker to the ground and wounded him. He needed 6000 yuan to pay the co-worker, his sick girlfriend needed money for healthcare, plus she needed money to realize her dream of learning hairstyling. So there he was. He said during the toughest times, he endured an entire week with his girlfriend on only 5 yuan – one meal per day and one bag of instant noodles per meal.
The kidney sales team included “big brother,” “the pawn,” “the stalker” and “the doctor.” “The pawn”, whose nickname was “blue sky”, used to be a kidney donor – he owed some 200k yuan debts after a failed business. Like being invaded by aliens, someone who has once been on the operating table selling his kidney was now member of a kidney sales ring. “Blue sky” was responsible for transporting donors between the train station and the apartment, all day long. The apartment was pretty much self-administrated, but every night after “blue sky” got back, he would call for different donors to his room and inquired into happenings during the day.
Donors had to cook for themselves, two meals per day. Lunch was potatoes plus cabbages and dinner was cabbages plus potatoes. Only occasionally,there were tofu. Food expenses were 40 yuan per day. Since there were 15 people living in the apartment, food expenses have increased to 55 yuan per day. What’s worse, they also needed to deal with corruption. It was found that the chef responsible for cooking had ducks and cokes for himself every day. On May 23, cooking oil was used up. So they used some floating oil from a bottle of Laoganma spicy pepper sauce to stir-fry potato strips soaked with water. But cabbages were stir-fried without any oil at all.
As usually, foods were gone in seconds. Each donor ate out of his own bowl. They crouched around an iron frame, eating in silence.
Donors kept coming in. Every Friday was the health checkup day. On the morning of May 18, 2012, donors took a bus to Wanshili Hospital located at #319 Airport Road, Jianggan District, Hangzhou. Checkup fees and testing result sheets were all ready – each sheet with a donor’s name on it. In the “company” blank, there wrote “food factory.”
In addition to urine and blood tests, there was also ultrasonic testing to check the size and the condition of kidneys. A female doctor asked out of curiosity: “Why do you want to check the size of the kidney?” “Blue sky” threw the question off. All procedures were pretty standardized and results were ready that afternoon. Those who passed the checkup will be allowed to enter the next pharse: taking blood samples every Sunday for transplant matching.
May 20, 2012, Sunday, “big brother” brought in “the doctor” (who may or may not be a real doctor) to take blood samples for donors in the apartment.
These blood samples had to be sent to authorized hospitals for matching analysis. They usually sent blood samples to a hospital in Shangsha which was about 13 hours of driving away. “Big brother” usually picked someone from the donors with drivers license to go with him.
After taking blood samples, a new group of donors who just passed health checkups sat down to sign “paid kidney donation” agreements. It was just a piece of paper that needed to be signed and given back to the ring. In black markets, patients need to pay somewhere between 200k to 500k yuan for a kidney, but only 35k of that amount end up in the hands of kidney donors in these kidney sales rings. Such rings have developed pretty well-established networks across the country. Price is more or less the same everywhere. If someone pays more than 35k, chances are it’s a fraud.
Then all that was left was to wait, wait for successful matches, wait for phone calls from kidney recipients and wait for a high-speed rail ticket to the operating table. If someone got ready-to-go call, others would bid him goodbye and wish him good luck. The waiting period usually lasts one to three months. For those who are badly in need of money, they can choose the “fast track”, that is, transplant without a proper matching process. They will be put into contact with a patient who is also badly in need of a kidney. As long as the two parties have the same blood type, they will proceed with kidney transplant. Compensation of a “fast track” kidney sale is only 20k yuan.
In spare time, donors killed time by smoking, playing cards, sleeping, chatting and surfing the Internet in net cafes. Every day, each provider was given a pack of cigarettes. Da Qiang Men, Hong San Huan, Xiong Shi, Hong Mei…these cheap cigarette brands cost at about 2 yuan per pack were in great demand.
On the afternoon of May 16, some newbie donors went to Linping Park for some fun when “blue sky” was out. While on streets, these kidney donors looked no different from any ordinary guy, but in reality, they lived in a totally different world.
The French windows of the apartment were all covered up with newspapers. On one of the newspapers, there was a news article titled “Huge human organ traffic ring broken in Jiangsu, Rescuing 20 young kidney sellers.” One donor at the apartment who accidentally saw the news commented: “This is not rescuing but harming us.”
Li was born in Shanxi and lived in Xiamen. It’s said that he owed large sum of money to local usury. At 3 pm, May 26, he took a train from Hangzhou to Guangzhou to meet with the kidney recipient. He was preparing for the operation.
Ding Hongjin, who already sold his kidney, was from Anqing, Anhui. He owed over 20k yuan on his credit cards. So he sold one of his kidneys at Foshan, Guangdong on Feb. 23, 2012. He was paid 20k yuan. Yet after paying back to credit cards from the Industrial Bank and the China Merchants Bank, he was once again left with no money.
82 days after he sold his kidney, Ding still lived in a dim rented apartment near a village in Beijiao County, Foshan, Guangdong province. The rent was 250 yuan per month. Because his ID was taken by the police, and also because he didn’t recover as well as expected after his kidney was taken, he cannot land a job no matter how hard he tried. At the same time, credit card late fees kept growing. His overdue payment to the China Merchants Bank was as many as 550.14 yuan. Plus late fees from the Industrial Bank, he was,once again, close to 20k yuan in debt, the same amount as before he sold his kidney.
It’s been 7 months since Ding Jinhong sold his kidney. He’s been unemployed for all these 7 months. If he hadn’t chosen to sell his kidney and instead found a job with a 3000 yuan monthly salary, he’d earned the same amount as what he got from selling his kidney. Ding still didn’t dare to go back home and visit his one-year-old daughter. To many people, to sell kidney may be their last resort, but it’s more likely to be stepping on a road with no return.