Thousands of Hongkongers have opted out of the city’s organ donor registry, seemingly as a form of subtle protest against proposals to establish deeper medical ties with mainland China.
Between December and April, there were more than 5,700 applications to withdraw from the centralised organ donor registry, the government revealed on Monday. That is “significantly higher” than the normal rate of withdrawals.
The trigger appears to have been a life-saving operation carried out in December on a four-month-old baby girl in Hong Kong, who was in need of a heart transplant. When a local match could not be found, a heart was transferred from a child who had suffered brainstem death in mainland China.
That was a rare instance of a cross-border organ donation between mainland China and Hong Kong, a special administrative region of China that was ruled by the UK until 1997.
Since the baby’s heart transplant, authorities have discussed the idea of establishing a mutual assistance registry with mainland China to facilitate future donations. That would be yet another erosion of the boundary between China and Hong Kong, which was supposed to remain largely autonomous from Beijing until 2047.
Earlier this month, local news outlet Ming Pao reported that there had been discussion on social media among Hongkongers who did not want their organs donated to patients in mainland China.
More than half of the recent flurry of withdrawals from the registry were invalid, either because they came from people who had not already opted in or because they were repeat applications.
On Tuesday, John Lee, Hong Kong’s chief executive, said that police would investigate suspicious cases. The government blamed “a small number of individuals [who] distorted the virtue and altruistic value” of organ donation for the surge, accusing them of intentionally creating an administrative burden for the authorities.
But a government spokesperson admitted that the numbers who legitimately opted out – 2,880 people in the five months from December – were “far higher than before”.
Hong Kong has an opt-in system for organ donations with 357,000 people on the register, equivalent to about 5% of the population. Waiting times remain long: as of 31 March, there were nearly 3,000 people waiting for an organ transplant, according to the Hong Kong hospital authority.
Many Hongkongers are mistrustful of the health system in mainland China. Fears about organs harvested from prisoners are especially common. China said that it would stop using executed prisoners as sources for organ transplants in 2015.
Lee said: “I severely condemn those who attempt to cause damages to this noble system which saves lives through organ donations,” adding that the withdrawals were “shameful”.