The United States on Tuesday declared 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 annual U.S. State Department report downgraded China to its lowest Tier 3 rating, saying it has not met "the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking and is not making significant efforts to do so."
The U.S. credited Beijing with taking "some steps" to address human trafficking. But it said local officials in Xinjiang "coerced Uighur men and women to participate in forced labor," while authorities forcibly repatriated North Koreans without screening them for the possibility of trafficking, decreased law enforcement efforts to combat trafficking and and subjected Chinese men, women, and children into forced labor in brick kilns, coal mines and factories with little government oversight.
The report said Chinese women and girls are subjected to sex trafficking within China.
"Traffickers typically recruit them from rural areas and take them to urban centers, using a combination of fraudulent job offers and coercion by imposing large travel fees, confiscating passports, confining victims, or physically and financially threatening victims to compel their engagement in commercial sex," the report concluded.
The designation of China as a human trafficking offender 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.
Last week, Trump said in a Twitter comment he appreciated Beijing's efforts to rein in Pyongyang's military ambitions, but "it has not worked out."
Before the report's release, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said China strongly opposes the United States "speaking irresponsibly," and China is willing to strengthen cooperation in the fight against human trafficking with all countries.
"China's government commitment to fighting human trafficking has been resolute and our results have been obvious for everyone to see," he said.
Other offenders include DRC, North Korea
The report listed 22 other countries in the lowest Tier 3 category: Belarus, Belize, Burundi, the Central African Republic, Comoros, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Iran, North Korea, Mali, Mauritania, Russia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Venezuela.
The report said Russia "maintained, and recently expanded, bilateral contracts" with North Korea so Pyongyang could operate "labor camps on Russian soil and subjected thousands of North Korean workers to forced labor. Authorities routinely detained and deported potential forced labor victims without screening for signs of exploitation, and prosecuted victims forced into prostitution for prostitution offenses."
Countries placed in Tier 3 can be penalized with sanctions barring them from participating in cultural exchanges with the United States. But past U.S. presidents have granted waivers to the worst offenders and Trump could do the same.
In the report, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson described human trafficking as "one of the most tragic human rights issues of our time. It splinters families, distorts global markets, undermines the rule of law, and spurs other transnational criminal activity. It threatens public safety and national security."
"But worst of all," he said, "the crime robs human beings of their freedom and their dignity. That's why we must pursue an end to the scourge of human trafficking."
The report said that "effective anti-trafficking law enforcement efforts are inherently challenging and even the most effective governments struggle to address the crime comprehensively."
It said that worldwide there were fewer than 10,000 human trafficking convictions in the last year, "while estimates of the number of victims of human trafficking remain in the tens of millions."
The report said that "many criminal justice systems around the world are faced with cases that exceed their processing capacity. Limited funding and poor training for personnel impede the investigation of many types of crimes, including human trafficking. Often, the time and resources that do exist are stretched across competing priorities."