CFR: (Margaret K. Lewis) Why Beijing Fails to Fight Human Trafficking

Affiliated Scholar Margaret K. Lewis of Seton Hall University was interviewed by CFR about human trafficing in China.

The latest U.S. State Department report on human trafficking was notable for its harsh assessment of China’s performance and the country’s downgrade to the world’s lowest tier of ranking. This change in tone regarding human rights in China by President Donald J. Trump’s administration could complicate relations, says Margaret K. Lewis, professor of law at Seton Hall University, in a written interview. Lewis says human trafficking and forced labor are likely to remain significant problems in a society where overall human rights are under steady assault by the Chinese government. China’s leadership, she says, has chosen to decisively silence voices who advocate for the protection of human rights, which are perceived as threats to the ruling communist party.

What is the state of human trafficking, including forced labor, in China?

Deeply troubling. China remains both a country of origin and destination for cross-border human trafficking. Credible reports paint an alarming picture including forced labor, particularly among drug addicts and ethnic minorities, and repatriation of North Koreans to grim fates. There are also concerns regarding the seriousness with which the government is investigating and prosecuting sex and labor traffickers. China needs to revise its domestic laws to bring them in line with international standards and then implement those laws robustly so that they are not mere paper tigers.

The opacity of China’s criminal-justice system and government makes it difficult to define precisely the scope of the problem. Among the recommendations in the State Department’s 2017 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report are a call for greater transparency of Chinese government efforts to combat trafficking and better data sharing. Reports that some officials facilitate or are even complicit in trafficking heighten concerns.

How does China respond to such naming-and-shaming reports?

The current Chinese leadership has vigorously refuted all international criticism of its human rights record. The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson responded to the 2017 TIP Report by stating that China is “firmly opposed to the irresponsible remarks made by the United States based on its domestic law about others’ efforts against human trafficking.”

The U.S. Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA), which Congress first passed into law in 2000, mandates the tiered classifications and is a domestic law. But the fundamental standards by which China is being judged are those of international law to which China, as a sovereign state, has largely voluntarily committed itself.

China is a party to critical international agreements concerning human trafficking. The United States is not asking China to adopt its domestic laws. It is calling on China to live up to international standards.

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