WASHINGTON - The United States is set to declare China as among the world's worst offenders in human trafficking and forced labor, placing it alongside countries the U.S. has long disparaged — Iran, North Korea and Syria.
The designation, expected to be formally announced by U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Tuesday, could further aggravate tensions between Washington and Beijing at a time when U.S. President Donald Trump had sought to enlist Chinese President Xi Jinping in an effort to curb North Korea's nuclear weapons development.
Ahead of the move becoming official, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said China strongly opposes the U.S. "speaking irresponsibly," and that China is willing to strengthen cooperation in the fight against human trafficking with all countries.
Why the downgrade?
Last week, Trump said in a Twitter comment that while he appreciates China's efforts in dealing with Pyongyang, “it has not worked out.”
It was not immediately clear what led Tillerson to downgrade China in the State Department's annual assessment of human trafficking that covers more than 180 countries. Last year's report said Beijing was not doing enough to curb “state sponsored forced labor,” and did not meet “minimum standards” for fighting human trafficking, even though it was making progress.
The 2017 report lists China as a Tier 3 human trafficking and forced labor offender, the lowest ranking, according to officials familiar with the ranking. The 2016 report placed China on a Tier 2 “watch list” deserving special scrutiny in the last year.
Sanctions a possibility
A year ago, the report described China as a “source, destination and transit country” for forced labor and sex trafficking. Internal migrants in China were particularly vulnerable, the report said, with some people forced to work in factories and coal mines with little governmental oversight. It also said men, women and children from other Asian countries and from Africa are being exploited, while girls and women from rural areas often were recruited for sex trafficking in cities.
Countries placed in Tier 3 can be penalized with sanctions barring them from participating in cultural exchanges with the U.S. But past U.S. presidents have granted waivers to the worst offenders and Trump could do the same.
There was no immediate reaction from Beijing about the planned U.S. action.