Surge in arrests of foreign teachers in China: Law firms

In a picture from on June 7, 2019, teachers cheer on the arrival of students at the High School affiliated to Renmin University of China for the first part of the country's annual national college entrance exam.
In a picture from on June 7, 2019, teachers cheer on the arrival of students at the High School affiliated to Renmin University of China for the first part of the country's annual national college entrance exam.PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING • Arrests and deportations of foreign teachers in China have soared this year, amid a crackdown defined by new police tactics and Beijing's push for a "cleaner", more patriotic education system.

Four law firms told Reuters that requests for representation involving foreign teachers had surged in the past six months by between fourfold and tenfold, while teachers and schools confirmed arrests and temporary detentions for minor crimes had become commonplace.

Switzerland-based Education First (EF), which runs 300 schools across 50 Chinese cities, has seen a "significant"increase in detentions in China for alleged offences including drugs and cyber-security violations, according to a June 27 notice sent to employees and seen by Reuters. It said EF staff had been "picked up by police at their home and work as well as in bars and nightclubs and have been questioned and brought in for drug testing". The notice said the schools had also received warnings from embassies about the arrests.

A spokesman for EF declined to comment on the content of the internal notice but said the firm "values our close collaboration with the Chinese authorities", adding that it "regularly reminds staff of important regulatory and compliance policies".

Mr Peter Pang, principal attorney at the IPO Pang Xingpu Law Firm in Shanghai, which represents foreign teachers in disputes, said: "There's tremendous pressure for them to keep things clean. It's all part of (President) Xi Jinping's idea to make sure that China can show a good face to the rest of the world."

China had roughly 400,000 foreigners working in its education industry in 2017. The industry has long been plagued by abuses on both sides, with many foreign teachers working without proper visas and some schools taking advantage of that.

The behaviour of foreign teachers in China was thrust into the spotlight last month when 19 foreign citizens, including seven who worked for EF, were arrested in the eastern city of Xuzhou on drug charges. The case drew criticism in state media, which echoed earlier calls by Beijing to push for the eradication of foreign influences from the country's schools.

Ms Emily, 25, an English teacher from the American state of Utah, said a school in south-western Chengdu held her passport for 10 weeks late last year, refusing to hand it back until she threatened to call the police.

 

"There was always an excuse, like registering my dorm with police or some administration to transfer my visa ... at one point they just said they were keeping it safe," she said, asking not to publish her full name or the name of the school because of an ongoing arbitration.

The school docked her 16,000 yuan (S$3,140) monthly salary by 1,200 yuan for an unexpected "agency" fee. Lawyers say the practice is not unusual, and arbitration typically costs more than the withheld wages.

"What has changed is that many government officials think that kicking out Western influences like English teachers is doing the (Chinese Communist) Party's work, and the schools are taking advantage of it," said Mr Dan Harris, Seattle-based managing partner of law firm Harris Bricken, who now advises against foreigners teaching in China. "The risks of going to China to teach far outweigh the rewards."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 14, 2019, with the headline 'Surge in arrests of foreign teachers in China: Law firms'. Print Edition | Subscribe