Little information about China's lucrative transplant business is publicly available. One human rights activist said there is fierce competition among hospitals to attract foreigners, who make up an estimated 30 to 40 percent of transplant patients in China.
"This was a substantial source of financial revenue," said Nicholas Bequelin, a Hong-Kong based China researcher with Human Rights Watch.
Guidelines posted on the Ministry of Health Web site give priority to Chinese patients. Health providers that want to perform transplants on foreigners must apply to the provincial health department, which in turn must seek approval from the national health ministry, according to the rules, which were dated June 26 but posted online Tuesday.
Doctors or hospitals caught performing illegal transplants face punishment, including loss of licenses permitting them to perform the procedures.
Health officials say China faces a severe shortage of human organs, estimating that out of 1.5 million people who need transplants in China each year, only about 10,000 operations are carried out. Voluntary donations remain far below demand in China, partly due to cultural biases against organ removal before burial.
Human rights groups have said many organs — including those transplanted into foreigners — come from executed prisoners who may not have given their permission.
Earlier this year, regulations issued by China's State Council, or Cabinet, made it illegal to harvest human organs without permission. The rules also included a ban on the sale of human organs for profit and on donations by people under 18.
Bequelin welcomed the regulations, which he said were enacted to counter criticism of China's human rights record before next summer's Beijing Olympics. But they still do not address the lack of transparency in the organ transplant system, which has no centralized regulation or oversight.
"We don't see that there are any steps toward better transparency, especially the source of organs, since many come from executed prisoners," he said.