With Human Trafficking Report, Tillerson Rebukes China on Human Rights
The first daughter joined the secretary of state for the report's launch as the Trump administration tries to find its footing on human rights.
The United States on Tuesday slammed China for its record on human trafficking as tensions between Washington and Beijing over the North Korean impasse are heating up.
For only the second time in the last 12 years, the State Department’s annual report on human trafficking gave China the worst possible ranking, meaning that it doesn’t meet international standards for preventing trafficking and isn’t taking steps to improve. In the report, released Tuesday, the State Department downgraded China from the Tier 2 “watch list” to a Tier 3 ranking, putting China below countries such as Afghanistan, Burma, and Qatar.
With its new designation, China could be subject to new sanctions and diplomatic restrictions under U.S. law, which could further exacerbate tense relations with Washington, though sanctions don’t impact trade or humanitarian foreign assistance and are often waived. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson pinned some of the blame for the demotion on Beijing’s close relationship with North Korea.
China was downgraded “in part because it has not taken serious steps to end its own complicity in trafficking, including forced laborers from North Korea that are located in China,” said Tillerson, speaking Tuesday at a ceremony presenting the new report alongside White House advisor Ivanka Trump.
Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), chair of the Congressional Executive Commission on China, lauded the move. “China was given a pass” in the past, Smith said in a statement released Monday. “Hopefully the new tier ranking coupled with robust diplomacy … will lead to systemic reforms,” he said.
Beijing, predictably, was incensed. “No country has the right to speak irresponsibly on China’s domestic affairs,” said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeman Lu Kang at a press briefing on Tuesday. “China’s government’s commitment to fighting human trafficking has been resolute and our results have been obvious for everyone to see.”
The Trump administration has been largely silent on Chinese human rights violations, preferring instead to try and work with China to put pressure on North Korea, which has made big advances in missiles and nuclear weapons. On a trip to Beijing in March, Tillerson stated that the “United States will continue to advocate for universal values such as human rights and religious freedom.” A week later, the United States declined to join almost a dozen other nations in criticizing China for detaining and torturing human rights lawyers.
Detailed information regarding the severity of China’s trafficking crisis is scarce. “This is not an issue the Chinese government is open about,” said Victor Clemens, a researcher at international nonprofit China Human Rights Defenders, in an email. “Any information they have is guarded, perhaps even classified as a ‘state secret.’” Heavy restrictions placed on foreign and domestic NGOs also make conditions difficult to monitor.
About 3.4 million people in China are living in modern slavery, according to the 2016 Global Slavery Index by the nonprofit Walk Free Foundation. Children and women of marriageable age are particularly vulnerable. Children from poor households or ethnic minority families may be kidnapped and forced to beg on the streets to earn money for their captors or to perform manual labor. And as many as 200,000 babies may be trafficked every year, sold on the black market or through adoption scams.
Sex trafficking is particularly widespread in China. The country’s one-child policy, finally relaxed just last year, created the most dramatic gender imbalance in the world as many couples practiced sex-selective abortions to satisfy a traditional cultural preference for sons. There simply aren’t enough women to go around, leading some men to buy wives from domestic or international traffickers.
Women who have fled North Korea are particularly vulnerable to being sold as wives to Chinese men, often in remote villages; an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 North Korean women may be trapped in sex slavery in China, according to a 2012 estimate by Kim Sang-hun, who directs the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights.
In 2013, the State Department gave China a Tier 3 ranking, citing rampant trafficking in women and girls. Its Tier 2 ranking was restored the following year due to “significant efforts” to improve conditions on the ground.
The Trafficking in Persons Report, started in 2000, outlines how every country is the world is addressing or ignoring human trafficking, and can pack quite a political punch. Downgrading countries can send political shockwaves and ratchet up pressure on governments to crack down, particularly in small countries where the weight of U.S. influence is amplified.
“We have heard from government officials, NGOs, and citizens on the ground how important and influential this report is in other countries around the world in motivating change,” said Susan Coppedge, ambassador-at-large for combating human trafficking, in an interview with Foreign Policy. She said naming and shaming countries that don’t step up “does make a difference and can get high-level political officials involved” in countries with low rankings.
But some human rights groups lambasted the latest report for upgrading countries still complicit in human trafficking, including Burma, Malaysia, and Qatar. David Abramowitz of Humanity United, a nonprofit that tackles human trafficking, called those upgrades “unjustified.” (U.S. officials said the countries had passed new laws and were making progress.)
Additionally, three countries known for recruiting child soldiers — Burma, Iraq, and Afghanistan — were excluded from the report’s section naming and shaming countries that used child soldiers.
Nevertheless, the White House is angling to be out in front on the issue — rhetorically, at least. Ivanka Trump, whose branded shoe factories in China are being investigated for using coerced and forced labor, joined Tillerson to present the State Department report. In February, Trump signed an executive order to clamp down on transnational crime and human trafficking, touting the drive as a way to achieve concrete results in otherwise tricky foreign-policy landscape. He even marketed his famous pledge to build a border wall with Mexico as a tool to stop human trafficking across the southern border.
“We need the wall for human trafficking, which is a problem that you should write something about at some point,” Trump said in a May interview with Bloomberg.
But Trump’s proposed budget would gut funding for some of the agencies meant to combat trafficking; one critical agency, the Bureau of International Labor Affairs, would be cut by some 80 percent to 100 percent under Trump’s proposal.
“Some of these cuts are incredibly egregious,” said Abramowitz. “If these cuts are happening … who’s picking up the slack for this?”
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Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. @robbiegramer