Teachers in China
The relative ease with which foreigners can be employed as teachers in China has means many Chinese students are learning with inexperienced and unqualified English teachers. Source: Shutterstock

Over the past few months, Chinese authorities have initiated an aggressive crackdown on Western teachers living and working in China. This crackdown has led to arrests, deportations and imprisonment, leaving China’s foreign teaching community in a state of unease.

There are as many as half a million foreign nationals teaching in China. Most of these foreigners were enticed to China during the country’s international education boom which created unprecedented demand for English language teachers at government schools, private schools, language centres and international schools.

Teaching in China has proven to be particularly popular with gap-year students and young graduates looking to combine work and travel. The huge demand for English teachers made it relatively easy for foreigners with (and without) university degrees to gain employment as English teachers. Many language teachers in China don’t hold internationally recognised teaching qualifications such PGCEs or degrees in education, and thousands have little more than a TEFL certificate, a qualification that can be gained in just three to four weeks.

High demand for foreign teachers has compromised quality

Chu Zhaohui, a senior researcher from the National Institute of Education Sciences, explained to China Daily that the demand for foreign teachers has resulted in many institutions cutting corners and not processing teaching applicants diligently.

“For foreigners, applying for jobs in English-language teaching at training establishments is straightforward-often, simply submitting a résumé is enough, and usually they are not required to undergo background checks, provide references or proof of qualifications,” he explained.

The relative ease with which foreigners can be employed as teachers in China has created a situation where many Chinese students are learning with inexperienced and unqualified English teachers. According to the State Administration of Foreign Experts Affairs, of the 400,000 foreign nationals working in China’s education sector, over 60 percent could be working illegally.

China’s war on drugs

A desire to ‘clean up’ China’s English language education sector is part of the reason for China’s determination to crackdown on foreign teachers. However, there is more to China’s clampdown on foreign teachers than simply catching poorly qualified educators. Foreign teachers in China are also being caught up in the country’s war on drugs and Beijing’s ideological clash with the US and Europe.

In July this year, a group of sixteen teachers and students from Education First, one of the China’s largest ESL schools, were arrested on drug charges in the Jiangsu city of Xuzhou. Their arrests came after on-the-spot urine tests tested positive for illegal substances. Expats in Shanghai, Beijing and other major cities have reported similar situations, with police surprising foreigners at home, at work, in bars and nightclubs, and demanding urine samples. These surprise inspections and random drug tests have been part of China’s heightened efforts to stamp out recreational drug use.

China severely punishes drug dealers and drug traffickers, with offenders facing a possible death penalty for possession of more than 50 grams (1.76 ounces) of controlled substances. Drug users can also be punished for failing drug tests; police do not need to catch users in possession of the substances. Chinese authorities can prosecute you regardless of where or when you consumed the illegal substances. Furthermore, if authorities find drugs during a house raid, penalties can be extremely severe.

Chinese authorities are now using a new method to detect drug use by examining the hair follicles of suspects. Drug tests such as these can detect the use of Marijuana up to three months in the past, leading to circumstances where foreigners may be punished in China despite having used Marijuana in regions where the substance is legal, such as California, Canada or Amsterdam.

Another reason that authorities are cracking down on foreign teachers is ideological.  China has long been wary of foreign influences in education, and in December 2016, Chinese President Xi Jinping reminded education leaders that, “Adherence to the Party’s leadership is essential to the development of higher education in the country”, emphasising the need to  “build universities into strongholds that adhere to Party leadership”.

Teachers in China

Chinese President Xi Jinping attends a meeting Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni (not pictured) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on June 25, 2019. Source: Nicolas Asfouri/AFP

As such, Beijing is pushing to make China’s education system “cleaner” and more patriotic. The Communist Party has actively campaigned against the spread of “Western values” at universities, pushing for the removal of disruptive foreign influences and ensuring schools encourage students to support the country’s ruling party. Foreign teachers who openly question the country’s political system, the lack of free speech, human rights offences or the ‘Three Ts’ can easily find themselves in precarious circumstances.

Foreigners, be warned

This combination of factors has led to warnings that foreigners must be cautious about moving to live and work in China. As Dan Harris, a Seattle-based lawyer whose firm represents foreign companies who do business in China, explains, “The risks of going to China to teach far outweigh the rewards.”

With tensions continuing to increase between the US and China, this crackdown on foreign teachers is set to continue. For those who are determined to work and travel in China, it’s essential to understand the dangers of violating the country’s rules and regulations. Prospective language teachers headed to the region must be properly qualified and refrain from recreational drug use.

For those wishing to experience teaching Chinese students from a safe distance, online teaching could be a great option, allowing you to remain in your home country or adopt the digital nomad lifestyle so you can still combine your teaching with travel.

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