There are a lot of people coming from around the world, to China to teach English. The Chinese have realised that a good grasp of English is important for international business and to open up better opportunities around the world. For the last few decades things have been pretty easy for anyone wanting to come here to teach English.
In the 80s and 90s anyone with white skin could land themselves a job as an English teacher, with almost no questions asked. This led to some pretty shoddy teaching in some areas, but as the Chinese move towards trying to become a superpower, they have started to demand better standards, at least officially.
In order to work in China as an English teacher, you need to have a university degree from an English speaking country, or a degree in English or Education, a TEFL or TOEFL qualification and two years of experience, or a masters degree. You need to have an invitation letter from your employer, to get a Z visa and then get a foreign expert certificate, to show that you are qualified to teach here. In reality, most English teachers in China don’t have these.
What is more important is that you look right and your employer has Guanxi (connections etc.). I have known several people who were denied jobs because of skin colour. The Chinese, in general, are racist. They admire America and Europe, and so look well on white people, but distrust blacks, Indians and middle eastern people. If your skin is dark, they usually don’t want you to be teaching their children. School recruiters will often be quite open about this, telling people that the parents will object or withdraw their children if the teachers are black (or openly gay etc, but that is a different matter). Similarly, if you look Chinese, it doesn’t matter whether you are British or not, you don’t look special or exotic enough to be worth the extra pay, compared to Chinese teachers.
If you have the right skin colour then there are plenty of people willing to bend or break the rules to get you jobs. There are quite a lot of people from eastern Europe that I have met in China, coming over to study Chinese, but working part time as English teachers. In one of my previous jobs my employer always claimed that they were Canadian, in order to pass them off as native speakers.
The process of applying for the official invitation letter, in order to then apply for the z visa is slow. You should expect it to take at least two months. It also requires lots of original documents and health checks etc. A much quicker way to get into the country is on a 3 month tourist visa or a 3 month business visa. Some of my current colleagues entered the country this way, being reassured that everything was ok, even though it was pretty blatantly obvious that this was all illegal. Once in the country the recruiter would then try to process the z visa and foreign expert certificate.
When I was taken to process my residence permit, having arrived legally, I was with two other teachers, one of whom was on a business visa. The girls from our agency were trying to coach him in what lies to tell and what not to say. Since they were translating for two of us who had come as teachers to teach English, as well as the third foreigner who had “come to develop his online shopping business” it must have been obvious that they were lying, but they got away with it. I know at least 6 people living in schools who came on business or tourist visas. How can they register the school as their address and not have officials know that they are teachers?
The simple fact is that in many parts of China there is still a big enough demand for native teachers that the Chinese are willing to turn a blind eye to the rule breaking, as long as the people breaking the rules have the right Guangxi. It is only in a few places, like Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen that the rules are more regularly enforced and even when they are enforced, it is not done strictly.
In Shenhen it is necessary to have two years of teaching experience after graduation. When I first came to China, hardly anyone I came with had any experience. They were all straight out of college. But the agency knew enough places that didn’t care about experience and just wanted to get more foreigners. In Shenzhen the experience rule is followed, but teaching agencies will break the rules, in order to get more people on their books.
A common practice is to encourage you to lie about your experience and to create fake reference letters from past employers to support your claims. In some cases they have changed the CV of the teachers and sent the fake CV, along with fake reference letters, to the school, without bothering to tell the teacher. I know one person very surprised to find that his school believed he had taught in Japan for two years.
Agencies will want to recruit as many teachers for schools as they can and will lie about your abilities to get you a job. One friend, Justy, came from Spain to teach Spanish, only to find that the School did not want a Spanish teacher and expected her to teach English. Her English ability was pretty poor, even compared to the students. She was therefore rejected by the school on her first day. She had entered properly, with a z visa and invitation letter, but it could not be transferred to another school.
In a city near the border teachers might be encouraged to leave the country and enter again every few months on a tourist visa, in order to teach. Justy was told to go to Hong Kong, to get a tourist visa, in order to be able to return and get work at a primary school, where her limited English was less of a concern.
It is not legally possible to apply for a visa in Hong Kong unless you are a Hong Kong resident, but CITA have contacts in Hong Kong who sell them fake residence documents for 5000 rmb a time. I only learnt the price because when they messed up with another teacher and applied for her papers they used the passport number of her passport which had been stolen months earlier, rather than for her replacement passport. They therefore needed to apply again and asked that teacher to cover the cost of the replacement forgeries.
Getting accepted for a residence permit or foreign expert certificate in Shenzhen is much harder than many other cities. They insist on native speakers with teaching experience. To get around this, many of the eastern European and Russian teachers had their documents processed to teach and live in a different city in China. They then continued to live and work in Shenzhen illegally, under the pretense of being in a different province.
If you are thinking of coming to teach English in China you can be sure that any agencies will try to convince you that the rules don’t really matter and that what they are doing is ok, but it is not true. The school you are working at may have been led to believe the lies about your experience and if they find out that they were lied to, you can very quickly find yourself out of a job. I heard of 4 people hired through CITA who were dismissed out of hand when either the schools realised they did not have the ability that the recruitment agency had claimed or the police happened to check their registration documents. They were released without pay and without having their flights refunded.
Agencies breaking the rules face fines when it is discovered that they have been illegally employing people. However, the schools usually turn a blind eye, as long as the employee seems competent and the agency fee is enough to make it worth the risks. Fines for companies with the right connections tend to be relatively low.
Just this month there was a big crack down on illegally employed teachers in the Bao’an district of Shenzhen, along with the rest of the city. CITA has a lot of local government connections, so they were given warnings to get things in order by the end of the month. Many inexperienced teachers, non-native English teachers and other illegally employed teachers are suddenly being dismissed from their jobs without compensation. If you are not legally allowed to teach then your teaching contract offers no protection and the government can also seize all funds from your illegal employment, freezing your accounts and leaving you with nothing.
I have seen it happen to a lot of very nice people. Don’t let it happen to you.