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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR NEWS. I'm Melissa Block.

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And I'm Robert Siegel. Over the years we have brought you harrowing tales of Chinese prisoners subjected to forced labor. Well today a similar story but with a twist. The former prisoner in this case is an American. Stuart Foster of South Carolina spent more than seven months inside a Chinese jail on charges of theft. During that time he says he spent up to 10 hours a day assembling Christmas lights for export to America. Frank Langfitt, NPR's Shanghai correspondent has the story of 1741.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Police in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou took Stuart Foster to the White Cloud District Detention Center, in April of last year. They charged him with taking a large sum of money from a colleague at a local university where Foster taught sociology. When he arrived at the jail, they gave him a cup and a toothbrush and put him in a cell where he would spend most the next 280 days.

STUART FOSTER: It was the size of an American racquetball court.

LANGFITT: Foster spoke by Skype from his home in South Carolina.

FOSTER: In the cell there was an average of 30 men. There was no amenities meaning there were no chairs, there were no beds, you know, we sleep on the concrete floor and most people didn't even have a sheet and certainly no pillows or whatnot. And it was so crowded that most inmates had to sleep on their side.

LANGFITT: In the morning Foster says they went to work in the cell, putting together Christmas lights.

FOSTER: They would bring in large industrial plastic bags that had the components that would be assembled. Each prisoner would get their quota. And inmates would line the walls or they would sit in circles just on the floor assembling lights to sockets.

LANGFITT: The detention center did not provide uniforms. So Foster says inmates worked in just their underwear during the hot summer months. Foster was stunned Chinese officials put him in a cell where he participated in and witnessed forced labor. He says the Christmas lights looked like the kind that hang from the rain gutters of American suburban homes. Over time he befriended a guard who said he helped sell the Christmas lights to unwitting U.S. companies at a famous trade fair in the city.

FOSTER: I was on B block because this guard was the only guard who spoke reasonable English. And he told me the reason he spoke reasonable English is because he was the individual who was involved with the selling at the Canton Trade Fair. He would refer to them as his American friends.

LANGFITT: NPR sent emails and called the Canton Trade Fair which refused to comment. The Guangzhou Police on the other hand confirmed inmates do assemble Christmas lights. But suggested the jail provided inmate labor on contract and didn't sell directly to companies.

MAYA WANG: I am Maya Wang, and I'm a researcher for the Asian division of Human Rights Watch.

LANGFITT: Wang says forced labor is common in jails here.

WANG: In China labor is actually written in the detention center regulations. So we could safely say that millions of people are engaging in forced labor at any one time, in just the detention centers alone.

LANGFITT: Of course inmates in many countries have jobs, including in the US. But Wang says there's a big difference. For one inmates like Foster hadn't even gone to trial.

WANG: These people have not been convicted yet. That is a very abusive situation.

LANGFITT: Prison labor is big business in China. A quick search of the Internet yields at least two dozen prisons, offering inmate labor to make everything from Crystal balls and fake eyelashes, to dentures and pleather products. A prison in east China Shandong province touts the advantages of inmates over ordinary workers, quote, "not only can you save labor costs, you can also finish the project early." Stuart Foster says labor at his detention center was really cheap.

FOSTER: Nobody got paid anything. If you didn't work you didn't get food.

LANGFITT: Or you got beaten. Fosters says a group of inmates ran the cell. They spurred workers with punches, kicks or worse.

FOSTER: There was one particular leader during the month of July that was particularly sadistic. Actually he had braided a few of the Christmas light chords together and he would come up behind inmates that were working slow and slash them across the back. And I can remember very clearly him doing it to this boy, who was in my estimation, you know, mentally retarded and he would deliver blows that, you know, right before my eyes you would see the welts develop.

LANGFITT: Fosters says compared to most inmates he had it pretty easy.

FOSTER: They took mercy on me as an American. I couldn't work as fast as they could. But I would assemble about 3,000 lights a day. And the Chinese would do double what I did. I was treated - I was, what I often say, the prize animal in very bad zoo.

LANGFITT: The Guangzhou Police denied Foster's stories about beatings. He said the jail operated under what they called, quote, "the rule of law and civilized management." Remorseful Foster confessed to taking the money. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to eight months, close to the time he'd already served. Foster is a lanky, amiable 49-year-old. He was well liked by colleagues at Guangdong University of Foreign Studies. Where he taught for a total of five years. After his release police took Foster to the airport to be deported. Several friends came along...

(APPLAUSE)

LANGFITT: ...And gave him a round of applause. As captured on this cell phone video. Back home in South Carolina Foster is trying to rebuild his life, looking back on his time in jail, he is not bitter.

FOSTER: It has given me a tremendous appreciation for life. I am sitting in a chair now and for 8 months I didn't have a chair. Also I want to say it gave me immense respect for the human spirit to endure.

LANGFITT: As a sociologist Foster says he is actually grateful to have see the brutality of authoritarianism firsthand.

FOSTER: That in a way became my purpose, to give meaning to my existence there. I was like, OK, I will live to tell this story.

LANGFITT: Foster is now working on a memoir. And after all of those months assembling Christmas lights, he tells friends next holiday season light candles. Frank Langfitt. NPR News, Shanghai.

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