China was downgraded Wednesday to the lowest ranking in an annual U.S. survey of human trafficking across the globe, raising the prospect of rare sanctions from Washington.
The U.S. State Department said China together with Russia and Uzbekistan have been dumped to the Tier-3 blacklist of the Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report after languishing on Tier-2 Watch List, the second lowest rank, for nearly a decade.
They join the other countries that have been on the blacklist for years—North Korea, Syria, Zimbabwe, and Iran.
In downgrading China, the State Department's Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons cited an array of human trafficking activities in the country, including forced labor, commercial sexual exploitation, child labor, and the forced repatriation of North Korean refugees, who face the prospect of death on their return home.
The Chinese government "does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking" despite being placed on the Tier 2 Watch List for the last nine consecutive years, the 2013 TIP report said.
There were "modest signs of interest" in anti-trafficking reforms, but Beijing "did not demonstrate significant efforts to comprehensively prohibit and punish all forms of trafficking and to prosecute traffickers," it said.
Tier-3 countries face the prospect of sanctions at the discretion of the U.S. president, and the State Department could consider recommending a suspension of U.S. funded programs in China.
"The president would be the one who would make the decision later this year...I can't really speculate as to what those may end up being," Luis CdeBaca, the State Department's Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, told RFA.
The downgrades on China and Russia came after U.S. lawmakers accused the State Department of giving special treatment to the major powers when evaluating their human trafficking record in a bid to avoid imposing sanctions on them for strategic or other reasons.
China and several other Tier-2 Watch List countries have also been accused of exploiting a loophole in the U.S. anti-trafficking legislation by pledging last-minute programs to combat human smuggling but failing to follow through year after year.
So Congress passed a law that came into effect in 2008 for an “automatic downgrade” for any country that had been on the Tier 2 Watch List for two years but had not taken significant anti-trafficking measures.
"The Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) authorizes a maximum of two consecutive waivers; a waiver is no longer available to China, which is therefore deemed not to be making significant efforts to comply with the minimum standards and is placed on Tier 3," the TIP report said.
CdeBaca hinted that Beijing's five-year action plan to combat human trafficking introduced in April—its implementation began technically outside the TIP reporting cycle for the year—offered prospects for China to be removed from the blacklist in the future.
"We all looked at the law and looked at the facts and we said, 'We don’t see the progress yet from the action plan," he said. "We hope to. You have something that is kind of a promise of future action but no results yet."
Beijing's new eight-year national plan of action includes measures to improve interagency and other internal coordination among anti-trafficking stakeholders and improve victim protection.
It reaffirms the importance of international cooperation in handling trafficking cases but also focuses on the importance of strengthening domestic anti-trafficking efforts. The plan also shifts its previous focus away from women and children as the only victims of trafficking.
The TIP report accused the Chinese government of perpetuating human trafficking in at least 320 state-run institutions, and not providing comprehensive victim protection services to domestic or foreign, male or female victims of trafficking.
In addition, as the government provides little information about arrests or prosecutions, it is difficult to determine if the government takes adequate steps to punish government officials complicit in trafficking, the report said.
It particularly cited state-sponsored forced labor, which it said is part of a systematic form of repression known as “re-education through labor.”
"The government reportedly profits from this forced labor, and many prisoners and detainees in at least 320 of these facilities were required to work, often with no remuneration," it said. "The prisoners were sometimes beaten for failing to complete work quotas."
Beijing also did not address the effects its one-child birth limitation policy has had in creating a gender imbalance and fueling trafficking, particularly through bride trafficking and forced marriage, the report said.
“As a direct consequence of the barbaric one child per couple policy in effect since 1979, China has become the global magnet for sex traffickers,” said Republican congressman Chris Smith.
“Women and young girls have been—and are today being—reduced to commodities and coerced into prostitution. Without serious and sustained action by Beijing, it is only going to get worse,” said Smith, a key author of the U.S. trafficking law.