NOEL KING, HOST:
A 6-year-old girl in South London was writing Christmas cards to the kids in her class when she found a bizarre message written inside one of the cards. It said, in part, we are foreign prisoners forced to work against our will; please help us. The card was made in China, and the message appeared to be written by a factory worker.
NPR's Frank Langfitt is watching all of this from London. Hey, Frank.
FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Hi, Noel.
KING: So what do we know about what happened here?
LANGFITT: Well, the girl, whose name was Florence Widdicombe, I believe, was opening this up to write to a friend. And inside, the note also said - it was written in - I think in caps - it said, please notify human rights organization, and please contact Peter Humphrey.
Now, Peter Humphrey lives in Greater London. He's - he was a corporate fraud investigator who served time in this exact prison in Qingpu, a Shanghai suburb. Now, Humphrey was eventually released in 2015. And the family reached out to Humphrey, who wrote about it in The Sunday Times. Humphrey used to be a Reuters reporter. The card was sold by the British supermarket chain Tesco. Tesco has said they're suspending any orders on these cards and are investigating.
KING: So in the meantime, the Chinese Foreign Ministry says this is a hoax. They say it's just not true. Are they offering any evidence for that claim?
LANGFITT: Not yet that I've seen, but the Chinese company that made the cards is emphatic that it never contracted with this prison outside of Shanghai and saying the charge of using forced labor is completely fabricated. Now, the Foreign Ministry actually - this is very curious, Noel - actually blames Humphrey personally...
KING: The journalist.
LANGFITT: ...And says that he's - suggests that he's behind all of this. Now, there's a past here. The Chinese government said Humphrey was in prison for illegally collecting citizens' information. I've talked to Humphrey on the phone. He says that charge was bogus. It was never heard in court. And he actually says that he recognizes the handwriting of the card as a prisoner that he knew when he was in the prison.
Now, I asked him about the Foreign Ministry's claim that he's behind this, and Humphrey says this is just a typical kind of response that the government uses to any accusations about human rights abuses.
PETER HUMPHREY: This is the kind of answer you always get. You get a lie. You get a complete lie in response. The one thing about this message that is a little bit different, maybe, is its very, very personal attack on me, accusing me of fabricating this story. But you know, I didn't invent a little girl in South London and her father, who I've never known in my life. And I didn't invent the message that they handed to me. So it's absolutely ridiculous.
KING: OK. That was Peter Humphrey.
Frank, you were based in Shanghai for five years.
KING: Did you ever come across stories like this?
LANGFITT: Yeah. It's actually not all that uncommon. These sorts of messages tend to surface in Chinese products every few years. Back in 2012, there was a woman in Oregon who discovered an account of torture in Halloween decorations that were made in China.
Back in 2014, I interviewed an American sociology professor. His name is Stuart Foster. He'd served time for theft, and I talked to him after he got out from prison - from jail, actually. And he said he'd been forced to assemble Christmas lights in a jail in Guangdong province. His quota was 3,000 lights, I think, a day. And he said the prisoners who didn't meet quotas were beaten. This is what he told me.
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STUART 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 cords together, and he would come up behind inmates that were working slow and slash them across the back.
LANGFITT: Now, Foster told me that he remembered one inmate being whipped, and this inmate was mentally slow, Foster thought. And he could actually see the welts warm on his back after he was struck. And after I did that story, Noel, I've been - I've received messages on Facebook and elsewhere from other former inmates, saying that they'd made Christmas ornaments and things like that in Chinese prisons.
KING: Gosh, this all sounds outrageous. What do human rights groups say about what's going on there?
LANGFITT: They're - they say that this is kind of standard operating procedure in a lot of prisons in China. Prison business is - prison manufacturing and sort of providing labor is big business. You can find advertisements on lines - online for this. And Human Rights Watch estimates there could be millions working at this.
And I was talking to Yaqiu Wang. She's a researcher with Human Rights Watch, and this is how she put it.
YAQIU WANG: According to Chinese law that prisoners - as long as you have ability to labor, you'll have to labor. So you know, forced labor is given in prison in China.
KING: In the couple seconds we have left, there are labor lots in China, right?
LANGFITT: There are. But what Yaqiu Wang says is the prison system is opaque, and they don't follow them.
KING: NPR's Frank Langfitt in London. Frank, thank you.
LANGFITT: You're very welcome, Noel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.