Teaching English in China: Let the Buyer Beware

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Teaching English in China: Let the Buyer Beware

  • Posted by: Peter Pang
  • Category: China 101

As anyone who knows remotely anything about China can tell you, let alone anyone who has lived or is currently living in China, interest in teaching English in China by native (or not) English speakers has grown exponentially as China’s economy has exploded over the past several decades. There were over 300,000 English language schools in China and more than a third of the Chinese mainland population was receiving instruction in the English language as of 2013. Since then, these numbers have only continued to skyrocket.

This explosion in interest in teaching English has come from college graduates (or not) in the United States, Great Britain and other countries who wish to spend a semester, a year or even longer, studying/working/visiting in China (and they often plan to do the three at the same time). While teaching may not be at the top on their priority list, most of them have picked up on this fairly new “teaching trend” as a way to make money in a relatively uncompetitive market desperate for English speaking teachers. This interest is also coming from many expatriates already living in China, including large numbers of foreign students on student visas and expatriate workers working in other jobs, that wish to teach English in schools (legal ones or not) or as private tutors.

“Why?” you might ask. Why would a Computer Science graduate from an American university suddenly find himself seized with a new passion for teaching? Well, if you have never travelled to China, the reason is simple. Money. Teaching in China pays, and it pays well. Non-native English speakers can expect $30 to $45 an hour, native speakers in some instances can charge up to $80 per hour in a country where the cost of living is much lower than in many English-speaking countries. Often payment is in cash and off the books.  There are also virtually no requirements to be a private teacher in China outside of the traditional state-owned educational system and rarely anyone will be asking for any type of degree or teaching certification. If you can talk in English and walk, you are hired!!  At this rate, you understand why so many students and non-students jump on the opportunity (and there are plenty) to teach English.

Nevertheless, many foreign college graduates and workers find out after they are already in country that teaching English in China is not quite the experience they had anticipated, both from a legal as well as a logistical standpoint. Anyone who has spent any significant amount of time in China will tell you there are just as many horror stories as there are successful teaching experiences among China’s population of foreign English teachers. Vice, an American media outlet, published an article in January 2015 chronicling the struggles of some English teachers in China from the United States. As the article points out, some prospective teachers hopeful for the experience of a lifetime often find out that their experience teaching English in China is not quite the adventure they were promised nor what they had bargained for when they first signed up.  This is because many of the third party, for-profit placement agencies that commonly match English speakers with Chinese schools do not fully explain the required visa process or legal requirements to work in China or, worse yet, take shortcuts that can result in the prospective teaching candidates arriving in China only to find that there is no place for them or the placement agency did not actually obtain the required visas necessary for the individual to work in China despite assurances otherwise.

This only highlights the importance for potential English teachers in China or expatriates living in China and working in another occupation to ensure they have the proper visas and government authorization to teach English in China. Doing so at the outset is extremely important, as by doing so you may save yourself a world of headaches once you are already in China.  If you are in the unfortunate position of already being in China and you are in hot water with the authorities, then keep reading!


Visa and Other Legal Requirements for Non-Chinese Citizens Teaching English in China:

To legally work in China (yes, teaching “only a couple of hours a week” makes you a worker – or an illegal one), a number of steps must be taken in order to legally teach in the country. These include obtaining the appropriate visa. A type Z visa is required in order to legally work in China. In order to obtain this type of visa, sponsorship from a Chinese employer is required.  Under Chinese law, an individual cannot work for a Chinese employer if the individual is in China on a tourist, business or student visa.

China’s Exit-Entry Law, which applies to foreign citizens living and working in China, was recently overhauled in late June 2012 and became effective on July 1, 2013.  The Exit and Entry Administration Law, or EEAL, as it is more commonly known, governs the entry and exit of foreign citizens into China as well as the process under which they are allowed to work in China.  Under Article 43 of the EEAL, it is illegal to work in China without first “obtaining the required work or residence permit” or to work in China “beyond the scope of the work permit” an individual already has.

As the United States embassy in Beijing has pointed out in its guide to teaching English in China, working in China in any capacity on any type of visa other than a Z visa, such as a tourist L visa, business F visa or a student X visa, is illegal under Chinese law.  Even those foreign expatriates who wish to teach or tutor English as a part time job are required under Chinese law to obtain written permission from their employer in order to do so.  Further, if a foreign teacher in China lacks the required visa, he or she also lacks the legal protections afforded by a labor relationship under Chinese law, such as the right to use labor arbitration to seek unpaid wages.  Therefore, it behooves any foreign resident who wishes to teach English in China to obtain a Z visa prior to beginning to teach in the country.


“Teaching in China Without the Proper Visa Can Be a Potentially Risky Move”

Despite the strict legal restrictions which exist that govern the teaching of English by foreigners in China, large numbers of the country’s expatriate population have turned to teaching English as a way to make a side income to keep up with the increasingly high cost of living in cities where such foreigners are concentrated, like Shanghai and Beijing.  However, if you choose to do so, you should be aware you are violating Chinese law, and specifically Article 43 of the EEAL, and subjecting yourself to the possibility of monetary fines or even imprisonment by exceeding the scope of your existing Chinese work permit. Although we have never heard of a case going up to such lengths, it is not unusual for authorities to fine teachers and take action by either revoking their current visa and/or blacklisting them and by doing so preventing them from ever going back to China for a significant amount of time. Until recently, China seemed to have turned a blind eye to this trend but has now started to take strong measures against this “black market” by cracking down on schools (legal and illegal ones) and requesting to see the proper work permits of the teachers. China is “cleaning up” its teaching market in an effort to favor “real” teachers (i.e. Chinese nationals with a teaching certification), who are often disregarded by schools in favor of foreigners.

You could also be setting yourself up for exploitation by an unscrupulous employer. Amongst many of the calls we have received from teachers seeking for advice and legal assistance, and amongst many of the horror stories we’ve heard, one seems to be recurring:

The person (or a group of persons in some occasions) are recruited by an agency to teach English in a school with the understanding that the agency would supply the proper visas once the teachers arrive in China.  However, the agency never follows through to obtain the Z visas actually required by Chinese law and, when the teachers’ student or tourist visas are about to expire, the agency offers to assist the teachers in obtaining a Z visa at a steep price.  Come to find out, neither the agency nor the school at which the teachers were hired to teach English was authorized to hire foreign, non-Chinese teachers.


Tips for Prospective English Teachers in China and Those Already in Country Considering Taking on Private Tutoring Students or Teaching English:

If you are considering teaching English in China, there are some steps you can take to ensure that you do not end up as one of the horror stories of a person who came to China only to find that he or she was without the required legal authorization to work like those chronicled in above.  First, do not sign up to teach English through an agency that tells you it will seek authorization for you to work after you have already arrived in China. Instead, only agree to teach English with an agency that insists you obtain a type Z visa through a Chinese consulate prior to your arrival in the country. Even then, you need to make sure you are not getting scammed by the school in the contract (many schools will provide you with a Z visa and promise you certain perks that you will actually never see), which is why you need to be extra careful while negotiating with the school and have someone who understands the Chinese legal system help you through the negotiations. A client of ours, who had obtained his Z visa prior to his arrival, was promised perks in a contract which were later taken back by the school, without any warning nor explanation. His passport was taken away from him by the school under a bogus excuse and he was blackmailed to either accept to teach under the new conditions or to pay a hefty sum for having “wrongfully not complied with the contract”. Long story short, neither his Embassy or his Chinese friends managed to talk the school out of this course of action. He was forced to pay the ransom simply to get his passport back.

The same goes for those who have the proper documentation but are not getting paid.  We’ve seen numerous examples of teachers who were lured to the country with the promise of a job and then were never paid for their work.  Instead, they showed up to work, only to find out one day that the owners of the school at which they were teaching had simply vanished with the students’ tuition money, leaving the teachers unpaid and with no way to contact the school’s owners. Often, the teachers already had paid airfare, accommodation, transportation, visa fees, etc. to be there, only to be left holding the bag when the school’s owners vanished with their money.

If you wish to teach English in China, you should also research the agency or school you will be teaching for.  It is critical to establish ahead of time that the agency or school you will be working for is legitimate.  It is easy to do this through Internet research, but also ask to speak to some of the agency or school’s current teachers.  If the agency or school refuses this request, then you know something is not right.

“Do It the Right Way and Obtain the Proper Documentation, No Matter Whether You Are Already Living in China and Wish to Teach or Tutor on the Side or Full”

Finally, if you are a foreign student studying in China or an expatriate living in China and working in another job and you would like to tutor privately or teach English but don’t want to bother with the additional visa approval process, you should consider the risks of what you are doing versus the potential economic payoff.  Certainly, Beijing and Shanghai and other Chinese cities have incredibly high costs of living and it is always nice to make some extra money.  However, it is not worth subjecting yourself to potential monetary penalties or other forms of punishment or exploitation by a dishonest employer by cutting corners. Therefore, be sure to obtain permission from your employer for your side job teaching or tutoring English.  If you are currently teaching or tutoring without the proper visas or permits, then immediately contact an experienced expert on Chinese law. Not only will this assist in keeping you from facing monetary penalties or other legal ordeals, it will also ensure you can operate with total peace of mind.  In addition, never let your passport leave your sight and refuse to surrender it if anyone at the school or agency you are employed by insists that he or she needs to keep control of your passport.  A foreign English teacher can also register his or her employment contract with the local Labor Bureau by filing a copy of the contract, thus ensuring that the teacher’s employer cannot simply ignore the written terms of the contract or attempt to change those terms without the teacher’s consent.

Teaching English in China can be the experience of a lifetime or a horror story, but it is up to the teacher to take the steps to ensure that it does not turn into a complete disaster!


IPO PANG XINGPU, with headquarters in Shanghai China, we have been helping clients from all over the world with their legal matters since 1992. We are a group of dedicated attorneys and professionals with expertise and experience in a variety of legal disciplines.  Clients come to us “When Being Right Matters ®”.

Author: Peter Pang
Peter C. Pang* is Chairman and Managing Partner of IPO PANG XINGPU LAW FIRM., His expertise includes corporate law and formation, franchising – inbound and outbound, mergers and acquisitions, real estate acquisitions, private placement, technology transfer, joint venture formation and business alliances, and trade secrets and intellectual property protection. Mr. Pang’s over 35 years of law practice in the People’s Republic of China and the United States places him amongst a handful of US-China lawyers with Asian International Expertise and in-depth appreciation for both the Western and Asian cultural and business differences and sensitivities. Mr. Pang is an attorney who “not only knows, but knows how” to close a deal, litigate vigorously and represent clients zealously. We don’t sell time, we sell solutions ™.

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