SPARTANBURG, SOUTH CAROLINA — An American who was arrested in China for stealing spent eight months assembling Christmas lights in a detention center.
Stuart Foster lives in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Life there is quiet and comfortable.
It’s hard to imagine that just months ago, he was working six days a week, more than eight hours a day, assembling Christmas lights in the Baiyun Detention Center in Guangzhou, China.
“At about 9:30 or 10 [in the morning], it varied, they would bring in work in big bags, industrial plastics bags," said Foster. "And it would be in the outer cells, the bosses would count and see how much it was, and then call for the inmates on the inside to come get their portions.”
He said the guards told him the lights are exported to the U.S. and other Western countries.
Foster was detained for stealing money from a fellow American teacher at the Guangdong University of Foreign Studies.
Foster admitted the theft and returned the money. After eight months in detention, however, he was convicted and sentenced to time served. He was deported from China last December.
Foster said he was forced to work even though China claims to be closing labor camps. “Now when you look at the news, there will be reports, 'well, they are closing the reeducation through labor' or 'they are turning many of these into drug rehabilitation centers.' But where I was, if you don’t work, you were beaten. If you don’t work, they take your food. If you don’t work, you will not have your case heard. It was at every turn physical punishment if you didn’t work. If that’s not forced labor, what is?"
His defense lawyer, Jade Wei, told VOA via Skype that the labor is part of China's legal process. “According to Chinese criminal law, physical labor is part of the efforts to rehabilitate people. As far as I know in American prisons, inmates have to work, too.”
Foster said businesses who are making millions of dollars, though, are abusing the rights of inmates. He said he also thinks American companies who import these products should be held accountable.
This report was produced in collaboration with the VOA Mandarin service.