In September Chinese police conducted simultaneous raids at locations across 11 provinces, arresting more than 300 suspects involved in a vast human trafficking ring, in the process rescuing 92 children and two women from being sold into modern day slavery. News of similar arrests, while shocking, is commonplace in Chinese state media. The government has acknowledged that China has a problem with human trafficking, and officials have vowed to launch further crackdowns on kidnapping rings.
But independent estimates of the number of people sold into trafficking each year, combined with the sheer scope of arrests, suggests a far greater problem than the Chinese government has so far been willing to acknowledge. In fact, despite the crackdown of recent years, in this year’s annual Trafficking in Persons report, the US State Department downgraded China from a Tier 2 to Tier 3 country, the report’s lowest ranking. Tier 3 countries – including the Republic of Congo, North Korea, Iran and 18 others – are those where the government has failed to take affirmative steps to combat human trafficking.
The report, published in June, highlighted the alarming scope of human trafficking: “China is a source, transit, and destination country for men, women, and children subjected to forced labor and sex trafficking,” it states. It documented cases of mentally ill workers being beaten and forced to work without pay, girls from the Tibet Autonomous Region trafficked to other parts of China for domestic servitude and forced marriage, and stolen children being made to beg.
The majority of trafficking occurs within China’s borders, but there are also reports that Chinese men, women, and children being subjected to conditions of forced prostitution and labour in numerous other countries. Workers often migrate abroad voluntarily for jobs in coal mines, beauty parlours, construction sites and more, but then find themselves in a situation of forced bondage, with their passports confiscated and restrictions placed on their movement, wages withheld, and under threats of physical or sexual abuse. Within China, workers are forced to toil in brick kilns, coalmines, and factories.
The report also found officials from the Chinese government culpable in several cases. In July 2012, for example, eight girls, all under 14 years of age, were kidnapped and forced into prostitution, and “local government officials and businessman were among the five people arrested for the girls’ commercial sexual exploitation.” The State Department also accused the Chinese government of perpetuating human trafficking through its “re-education through labour” camps.
Trafficking in China takes many forms. Young women are deceived into working in prostitution. Women are sold into marriage in rural areas, the result of a growing gender imbalance. And children are stolen from their parents and sold into adoption. Indeed, much of China’s human trafficking problem has been linked to the One Child Policy.
The State Department estimates that approximately 20,000 children are kidnapped in China each year, while other estimates are much higher. Most are sold into domestic adoption, but some do end up being adopted internationally, according to a report by Charlie Custer, who filmed a documentary on child trafficking in China with his wife.
In November 2005, Chinese journalists reported that infants from Hunan and several other provinces were being sold to major orphanages in China, and that the orphanages had lied about the children’s origins to adoptive parents. The news shocked the U.S. adoption community; Americans adopt nearly 3,000 Chinese children each year. Police rarely act on reports of missing children, and in many cases, within 24 hours the child is already hundreds of miles away.
Trafficking in China also occurs “in the context of large-scale migration within the country,” according the United Nations Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking. China’s migrant population has reached more than 10% of the total population and is over 30% of the total rural labour force, according to UNIAP. Around 600,000 migrant workers leave the country annually to work overseas, and as many as 90% of migrant workers are migrating through “unregulated and uninformed channels,” according to UNIAP’s data.
Based on an analysis of print media articles in China, UNIAP says the main means of trafficking are fraud and deception (37%), kidnapping (26%), and abuse of power (17%). Yunnan and Guizhou provinces were the main source provinces, based on media reports, while Fujian, Guangdong, and Shandong provinces were the main destination provinces. Henan was both a source and destination province.
The Chinese government has trumpeted the success of its intensified crackdown. In 2011, police said they had rescued more than 13,000 abducted children and 23,000 women over the previous two years. China has also said it plans to introduce toughened laws to punish buyers of children and parents selling their own children. Responding to the Trafficking in Persons report, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said Washington “should take an objective and impartial view of China’s efforts and stop making unilateral or arbitrary judgments of China.” She added that China “has achieved remarkable progress in fighting domestic and transnational trafficking.”
However, critics say the government has not done nearly enough to combat one of the great problems plaguing Chinese society. John Sifton, Asia advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, has said that China has been given many warnings about human trafficking and opportunities to improve their efforts, and he urged the White House to impose sanctions. “The State Department has demonstrated that it is prepared to sanction even the most powerful countries in the world if they don’t meet the standards set out under US law,” Sifton said, referring to the Trafficking in Persons report. “The question for the White House is whether they’re prepared to execute the sanctions.”
Without a comprehensive crackdown and solution, the outlook remains grim. Although the government has vowed to ease the One Child Policy, there remains a strong preference for boys in rural areas and a gender imbalance where boys will outnumber girls by more than 40m by 2020. Coupled with continued urban migration and vast economic inequalities, the conditions remain ripe in China for human trafficking. Newspaper headlines trumpeting crackdowns on trafficking rings can help, but not without asking a fundamental question: What more can be done?