The US State Department has downgraded China in its annual "Trafficking in Persons Report," placing it alongside what are deemed the worst offenders. It's the first time China has appeared in the category.
The Trump administration pointed to claims that China coerces labor from its ethnic Uighurs, a Muslim majority in the west of the country, and to forced repatriations of fleeing North Koreans, as reasons for downgrading the country in the US government's annual "Trafficking of Persons Report."
China is now in the report's third tier of offenders, which also includes North Korea, Syria, Zimbabwe, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Russia.
Unveiling the report in Washington on Tuesday, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that Beijing "does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking and is not making significant efforts to do so."
The move is the first major rebuke by the Trump administration against China's human rights record.
US President Donald Trump appeared to soften rhetoric on Beijing as he sought help pressuring North Korea into giving up its nuclear weapons program.
However, Trump has reportedly grown frustrated with China's response on the matter and is thought to be considering trade actions against Beijing, according to senior administration officials.
Republican lawmaker Chris Smith, who authored the anti-trafficking law that mandated the annual State Department report, issued a statement following the report's publication calling for sanctions against China to penalize it for its record on human rights.
For the past three years, China had been in the watch list's second tier.
Upgrades come under scrutiny
The State Department's decision to upgrade its assessment of certain countries, particularly Myanmar and Iraq, prompted outcry from rights groups.
According to the report, the two countries were no longer found to be using child soldiers, a claim Human Rights Watch's advocacy director for children's rights described as a "lie."
"The US provides Iraq with billions of dollars of military assistance each year; in exchange, it should insist the government put an end to child recruitment by its units," Jo Becker said. "Instead, the State Department isn't even acknowledging Iraq has a child soldier problem."
Meanwhile, Myanmar was this year elevated from the lowest tier despite the ruling government of Aung San Suu Kyi facing increasing criticism for fighting an ethnic conflict against he country's Muslim Rohingya minority.
Last week, the news agency Reuters reported that Tillerson had ignored recommendations from State Department officials not to remove the countries from the lowest tier.
When asked how the list was complied, the State Department simply said that it "does not discuss details of internal deliberations."
President Trump's daughter Ivanka presented the report alongside Secretary of State Tillerson.
The so-called "first daughter" said that ending human trafficking was in both the moral strategic interests of the US, adding that the effort was a "major foreign policy priority" for her father's administration.