The United States placed China on a list of nations considered to be the worst human trafficking offenders, a move that could exacerbate tensions with Beijing following an easing of relations in the first few months of the Trump administration.
The public rebuke to China could complicate efforts by the United States to persuade Beijing to help curb North Korea's nuclear and ballistic missile programs. China's downgrade puts the country among the list of the world's worst human rights offenders, including Iran, Syria, and Russia. The Associated Press first reported the move late Monday.
At the same time, the United States did not reverse controversial upgrades during the Obama administration of Cuba and Malaysia from the worst level 3 offenders to the middle rung, a No. 2 rating.
Reports in 2015 that senior officials in Obama's State Department overrode recommendations from career diplomats to raise Malaysia's and Cuba's designations outraged human rights advocates and opponents of the Castro regime at the time.
Several lawmakers took issue with the controversial moves and held hearings, arguing that the decisions were motivated by politics rather than evidence of human trafficking.
The Obama administration just months before had announced its diplomatic thaw with Cuba, and the higher designation for Malaysia meant it could be eligible for inclusion in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a major trade deal between the U.S. and 11 countries. The TPP was a major second-term priority for Obama but Trump withdrew from the trade pact almost immediately upon taking office.
"The government of the People's Republic of China (PRC) does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking and is not making significant efforts to do so; therefore, China was downgraded to Tier 3," the State Department said in a lengthy country-by-country report released Tuesday.
While China had taken steps to address trafficking, including working with other countries to investigate cases fund awareness campaigns and provide law enforcement data on trafficking convictions, the State Department said it couldn't verify how many cases the government provided were consistent with the international definition of human trafficking.
"Some unverified media and NGOs reports indicated that government complicity in forced labor continued," the report said.
Specifically, the report found that "local officials in Xinjiang coerced Uighur men and women to participate in forced labor in and outside the province," despite the local government announcing in early 2017 that the practice was outlawed.
Additionally, it said the government convicted fewer sex and labor traffickers compared to the previous reporting period.
Authorities continued to repatriate North Koreans without screening the for indicators of trafficking, the report found.
Even though the government requires the screening of all individuals arrested for prostitution, "it's unclear if any were screened, and the government did not report referring any such potential victims to shelters or other care," the report stated.
In addition, Chinese law does not "fully criminalize all forms of trafficking such as the facilitation of prostitution involving children younger than the age of 18, and defines several crimes as human trafficking that do not fit within international law," it said.