Human Trafficking in China & Ties to the US and Iowa

Minimum Standard Not Met

I recently returned from a three-week cross country tour of China. Although I was a tourist, I wanted to learn if and how the Peoples Republic of China is fighting human trafficking and what if anything NGO organizations (such as the Iowa NAHT) are doing to support services for survivors and to educate the Chinese people on this growing heinous and worldwide crime.

To my surprise and disappointment, there is little being done to meet even the minimum standards for the elimination of either sex or labor trafficking.

China has laws against slavery and trafficking but I learned that there is lax government enforcement and reporting as well as few survivor services. Foreign NGO activities in mainland China are limited and under the supervision of the government. There are a few government run shelters for trafficking victims but I could not find any survivor restoration facilities.

Visit with Ambassador Branstad

Within Iowa and across the United States, there is a growing concern with sex trafficking of Chinese women and girls under the guise of massage therapy businesses. I was especially eager to learn if there is an organized criminal syndicate involved in the trafficking of Chinese women and girls into the USA.

I am fortunate to know the U.S. Ambassador to China and his wife. Within a few days of our arrival in Beijing, my husband (a physician) and I were invited to have dinner at the U.S. Embassy residence with Ambassador Terry Branstad and his wife Chris. As you know, Terry Branstad was the governor of Iowa prior to his appointment by President Trump as the new U.S. Ambassador.

branstad-signingGovernor Branstad had been supportive of our Iowa NAHT efforts to improve anti-trafficking laws in Iowa and former first lady Chris Branstad was an advocate for trafficking prevention services and was a champion for the protection and welfare of vulnerable children and youth. One legislature bill that the Iowa NAHT is most proud to have worked to get passed, was the creation of an Office to Combat Human Trafficking within the Iowa Department of Public Safety. Iowa is one of only a handful of U.S. States with such an office and this bill was supported and signed by Governor Branstad.

China Connection to Massage Parlors in Iowa?

Before he departed Iowa, one of the last bills signed by the governor gave local control to cities to regulate massage parlors. This bill was written in order to address the prostitution taking place in massage businesses in Iowa. Already, ten Iowa cities have passed local massage ordinances. Businesses have been closed in seven Iowa cities and arrests for both prostitution and trafficking have been made.

I received a letter from a highly regarded Iowa attorney who describes very well how Chinese women are being victimized here in Iowa. He writes:

In 2017, I met with a young lady charged with prostitution. She was jailed, terrified, and only spoke Mandarin. She had no family in the United States. The obvious question was, how on earth did she end up in Iowa working at a massage parlor?

With the help of a translator, we discovered that the young lady had been brought to the U.S. by an older lady who promised her wealth and security as a massage therapist in the U.S. She entered in Las Vegas on a tourist visa and was quickly shipped off to Atlanta. Then, some more people drove her to Los Angeles. In Los Angeles, the older lady who had brought the young lady into the U.S. told her that she owed money for the trip, and that she had to stay in California to work off the debt. The older lady left her at a home with some strangers and flew back to China. The young lady was left with nothing. She was soon placed into an Asian Massage Parlor in L.A. Then, she was moved to Northern California. Then, one day, she was taken to Iowa, where an American man and a Chinese lady put her into an Asian Massage Parlor. None of this was done at gunpoint or anything. What her traffickers did was continually move her from place to place in a foreign land where she had zero connections to anyone.

We negotiated with the county attorney to have all prostitution charges dismissed. We met with anti-trafficking advocates and law enforcement. We personally drove her to two separate Iowa shelters so that she could get as far away as possible from her abductors. In the end, she was able to obtain a visa and enroll in school. The problem is spreading. This exploitation needs to end.

Ambassador Branstad and Chris were very welcoming and hospitable and we spent two and a half hours talking. I brought them up to date on our anti-trafficking efforts in Iowa. I asked about the Ambassador’s knowledge of any connection between criminal trafficking syndicates in China and Chinese women and girls being trafficked into the United States. He had not heard of a connection, but agreed to look into it for us. The Ambassador had recently asked Chinese President Xi Jinping for help to fight and stop the Chinese manufacturing and shipping of the highly addictive fentanyl into the United States. The Chinese government is now taking action to close these elicit labs.

My Own Visit to a Massage Business in China

The night following dinner with the Ambassador and Chris, I decided to schedule a deep tissue massage. I had been told not to go to a massage parlor on the street as these are the ones where sex may be offered. We were staying in a five star hotel known as the Kerry and the hotel had a spa. I was escorted into a very clean and neat massage room by a male who spoke English. After I was face down on the massage bed and under a towel, a very young and beautiful Chinese woman entered the room and started to massage my back. She spoke no English, but did motion to me to turn over. She then asked in perfect English, “handjob?” I said no and she proceeded with the massage only.

Urban vs. Rural in China

george-with-chinese-childrenAfter Beijing (pop. 30m.), we crossed the country and spent time in Xian (pop. 8m.), Chongqing (pop. 30m.), Shibaozhai (pop. 30m.), Jingzhou (pop. 6.5m.), Wuhan (pop. 11m.), Suzhou (pop. 5m.) and Shanghai (pop. 31m.). We also spent six days on a Yangtze river boat and visited several small and rural villages, an elementary school and one small private home.

The contrast in lifestyle and culture are starkly different between rural and urban settings. However, throughout China the people of all stations of life were friendly and curious to see and take photos with westerners. Their economy is booming. One sees construction high rise apartment projects everywhere and massive infrastructure projects that out strips anything I’ve seen in the United States. The middle class already tops 400 million, larger than the entire United States population. China has 170 cities with populations of nearly one million or more. China’s urban middle class is set to become a major driver of the global economy and a major force in the wider world.

chinese-high-risesHowever, China’s problems of trafficking, domestic abuse, rural poverty, human rights and frayed social service and safety networks is largely being ignored and disguised. It appears to me that the Chinese do not want to recognize or even speak about these problems. The government is so focused on manufacturing and massive housing, road and bridge building projects that they do not have time or interest to address social problems. I learned that Chinese culture also considers these problems as private matters to be dealt with by families themselves. This cultural attitude may be another reason that the government doesn’t want to get involved.

Visit with a Chinese Physician

I did meet with a rural Chinese physician who I heard had knowledge and concern about trafficking. He did not charge me for my appointment time with him. He told me about the problem of forced marriages of foreign girls to Chinese men. Due to the one-child policy and the preferences for male children, there are now many more men than women in China.

He also told me about poor rural families who sell their female children to men in other countries. Even though the one-child government policy has now ended, farming communities, where there is little education, still adhere to the cultural (and because they need labor) belief that girls are unwanted.

chinese-riverMost of the Chinese women, but not all, that are arrested in the United States for prostitution come from very poor, uneducated places in China. It is like a cottage industry to come to the United States, claim asylum, get released, go to NYC or the west coast, and start working in massage parlors.

The problem is that the U.S. urban market is getting saturated, so the women are moved to places like Iowa. I am told that they learn about these places through WeChat, which is a social network, that nearly every single Chinese person uses. A trafficker tells them that they can practice massage therapy in Iowa without a license and make a bunch of money. One thing leads to another, and before they know it, they are living at the massage parlor, engaging in sex acts and receiving only food as payment. They are prey, but the predator is hard to discern.

I have concluded that it is not as if there is one big criminal syndicate behind trafficking of Chinese women. Most of the time, it is another Chinese person who has been here in the United States longer, knows that all of it is illegal, but is willing to pay for the girls’ basic necessities, etc. in order to get the big cash profits that come from the sexual exploitation of their young victims. They are not concerned when the girls are arrested for prostitution. They just get more girls. If the business is shut down, they just move down the road. The traffickers are rarely brought to justice since their victims rarely identify them.

State Department Downgrades China to Lowest Level

My own observations and conclusions are confirmed in the 2018 Trafficking in Persons Report released annually by the US State Department. This is a 486 page report with a country-by-country narrative and rating of efforts to combat trafficking. The government of the People’s Republic of China was actually downgraded in the 2018 report to tier 3, the lowest level. The China section of the report starts on page 126 and is quite lengthy. Highlights from the Chinese section of the report follows:

“The government convicted fewer sex and labor traffickers compared to the previous reporting period. Authorities continued to forcibly repatriate North Koreans, where they faced severe punishment including forced labor and execution, without screening them for indicators of trafficking.”

“While the government reported mandating authorities screen for indicators of trafficking among all individuals arrested for prostitution, it was unclear if any were screened, and the government did not report referring any such potential victims to shelters or other care. The law does not fully criminalize all forms of trafficking such as the facilitation of prostitution involving children younger than the age of 18, and defines several crimes as human trafficking that do not fit within international law. The government handled most cases with indicators of forced labor as administrative issues and initiated prosecutions of the traffickers in relatively few cases.”

“Despite reports of police accepting bribes from sex traffickers, including brothel owners, the government reported few investigations of government employees complicit in human trafficking offenses. Two officials who reportedly solicited child trafficking victims for commercial sex acts were expelled from their political party and positions; however it is unclear if the government subjected these officials to criminal prosecution.”

“Academics and experts noted the gender imbalance due to the previous one child policy could contribute to crimes of human trafficking in China. The government’s easing of the birth limitation policy may decrease future demand for prostitution and foreign women as brides for Chinese men. Provincial government officials acknowledged most marriages between foreign women and Chinese men, including some forced marriages that may also involve trafficking, had not been legally formalized and examined options to legitimize such marriages and formulate mechanisms to provide residency rights to foreign nationals who married a Chinese citizen.”

“Government officials pointed to a reduction in child abduction cases as an indicator of a reduction in human trafficking crimes; however, it was unclear how many child abduction cases in China are related to exploitation in commercial sex or forced labor.”

“As reported over the past five years, China is a source, destination, and transit country for men, women, and children subjected to forced labor and sex trafficking. China’s internal migrant population, estimated to exceed 180 million people, is vulnerable to trafficking, with Chinese men, women, and children subjected to forced labor in brick kilns, coal mines and factories, some of which operate illegally and take advantage of lax government enforcement.”

“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. Well-organized criminal syndicates and local gangs play key roles in the trafficking of Chinese women and girls in China, recruiting victims with fraudulent employment opportunities and subsequently forcing them into commercial sex. Chinese men, women, and children are also subjected to forced labor and sex trafficking in at least 19 other countries. Traffickers recruit girls and young women, often from rural areas of China.”