BEIJING — When Cao Yangfang left her nursing job to become a full-time "human organ donation coordinator," someone who asks families to donate their just-deceased relatives' organs, she set herself the goal of persuading one in 100 families to give. That was in 2010, when China set up a nationwide voluntary donation system.
"I didn't realize how big a challenge that figure would pose," said Ms. Cao of the Zhejiang Province Human Organ Donation Management Center. She spoke at an event last Thursday in Beijing ahead of the Qingming festival, when Chinese remember their dead.
"Clear and Bright" is how the name of the festival that fell on Monday translates, and there was hope as well as sorrow at the event in an auditorium of Beijing Hospital. On hand were about 300 medical workers, Red Cross Society of China and government officials, donor families and organ recipients.
The gathering, organized by the Red Cross Society of China and Chinese Organ Donation, one of several groups promoting the switch to voluntary organ donation, was billed as an "organ donation memorial and popularization event." On a wall outside the auditorium were photographs of stone memorials inscribed with the names of donors that are being set up around China to honor their contributions.
The voluntary donation system has been slow to take off, hampered by cultural beliefs that a person's body must be buried intact. The first year, only 34 people donated, said Hao Lin'na, deputy chairwoman of the Red Cross Society of China.
Among the reasons people gave Ms. Cao as they declined: "If we donate, he won't find his way home." "We're already so pitiable, why are you making us donate, too?"
About 300,000 Chinese people need transplants each year. In the face of this enormous need, a system long riven with controversy for how it transgressed international medical ethical norms is changing, though doubts persist in some quarters.
Relying on organs from prisoners was never going to meet demand, said Dr. Jeremy Chapman, a former president of the Transplantation Society, in an interview. A modern system based on humanitarian principles was necessary as well as desirable, he said.
And voluntary donation figures are rising, officials say. In 2015, Ms. Hao said, 2,766 people donated 7,785 organs.
So in speech after speech, health officials, coordinators, the families of recipients and businesspeople issued appeals in an atmosphere that was a cross between a funeral and a charity fund-raiser: Support us! Donate more! Spread the word on WeChat!
A new fund to support organ donations and research, the Universal Love Fund, was announced, with 8 million renminbi, about $1.2 million, in seed money from the Shandong Weigao Group Medical Polymer Company, a medical devices manufacturer. The fund is to be overseen by the Red Cross Society of China.
Chen Jingyu, a lung transplant surgeon at the Wuxi People's Hospital and a member of the National People's Congress, appealed for more government support to ensure the speedy transport of organs to avoid waste.
Another challenge is the expense, as organ transplants are not covered by state health insurance, doctors said after the event.
Also, people are not used to the idea of donation, often offering to donate an organ a week after a relative's death, which can be too late, they said.
China will continue to build its voluntary organ donation system in its own way, said Wang Pei'an, a deputy minister at the National Health and Family Planning Commission.
"For a long time we lacked an organ donation system," Mr. Wang said, leading to a "very serious shortage" that "we will use Chinese methods to solve. This is a resolute struggle."