On Tuesday the US placed China on its list of worst offenders for human trafficking in the world, demoting its government to the same category as brutal regimes in Syria and North Korea.
It’s the second time this week that the US has criticized Beijing for its human rights record — a remarkable departure from both President Trump’s general lenience toward China during his presidency and earlier pledges to steer US foreign policy clear of value promotion.
According to the new annual Trafficking in Persons report by the State Department, China has officially been downgraded from Tier 2 to Tier 3 — the lowest of three tiers. Tier 1 signifies that a country is complying with the minimum standards of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act; Tier 2 means it isn’t fulfilling the standards but is making an effort to; and Tier 3 means failure to meet standards and a failure to make meaningful efforts to correct for it.
"China was downgraded to Tier 3 status in this year's report 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," Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said during his presentation of the report.
The report cited, among other things, forced labor among drug addicts and ethnic minorities, and the repatriation of North Korean refugees who are penalized with forced labor.
China has been sitting at Tier 2 for the past three years. Technically, after two years if a country does not show signs of improvement in tackling trafficking, it is automatically downgraded to Tier 3 — unless it’s granted a waiver. Last year, the State Department spared China from Tier 3 with a waiver. And it could’ve done so again this year, but didn’t.
Now China occupies the same stigmatized stratum as countries like Russia and Iran, and could be subject to sanctions for the designation. According to CNN, Tier 3 status can “trigger non-trade related sanctions and lead to restrictions on US foreign assistance.” But those punitive measures can also be overruled by the president.
In anticipation of the report — the details of which were leaked to the press on Monday — Beijing offered a stern preemptive response. "China firmly opposes the US’ irresponsible remarks on other countries' fight against human trafficking, based on its domestic laws," Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Lu Kang said.
This is a striking development: Granting China a waiver for another year would’ve been much more in keeping with President Trump’s tendency so far during his presidency to give Beijing latitude on a number of crucial issues. On disputes over trade, currency practices, and the South China Sea, Trump has consistently been gentle in his handling of US-China affairs, if not outright capitulating to Chinese interests. And based on his campaign rhetoric over his disinterest in telling other countries how to govern themselves, China had expected him to be silent on human rights issues.
But there are signs that Trump’s patience with China is wearing thin. Last week, he sent out a bizarre, cryptic tweet suggesting that he was already giving up on persuading China to try to rein in North Korea with more aggressive economic and diplomatic pressure tactics.
While I greatly appreciate the efforts of President Xi & China to help with North Korea, it has not worked out. At least I know China tried!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 20, 2017
The tweet had an amicable tone to it, but it also implied disappointment. While it was too vague to parse in any serious way, it did seem to indicate that Trump may be shifting gears in his China policy.
And this week, we may be seeing signs of it. Earlier this week, the US Embassy called for the removal of all restrictions on Liu Xiaobo, a prominent pro-democracy activist who has been released from prison in China on medical parole after being diagnosed with terminal cancer. China pushed back hard against the call; Lu warned the world against “interfering with China's internal affairs" on Tuesday. Beijing has similar feelings about being blacklisted on human trafficking.
US-China relations span far too many issues for the human rights criticisms to destroy the generally upbeat rapport between the two countries as of late. But the latest developments are a reminder of how challenging it is to discern the White House’s worldview on foreign affairs or even just how it seeks to handle relations with any specific country.
Trump originally depicted himself as a hawk on trade and as indifferent to human rights when it came to China. But so far, his presidency has gone in the opposite direction of that.