China recently issued new draft rules aimed at toughening oversight of foreign teachers in the country, requiring them to undergo ideological training sessions and creating a new social credit rating system to monitor their conduct.
Arrests and deportations of foreign teachers in China have soared since 2018 amid a broad crackdown on teachers without proper work visas and Beijing's push for a more patriotic education system.
Analysts told VOA this is partly due to the deterioration of U.S.-China relations and China's relations with other English-speaking countries. Yet parents say they are still interested in having their children learn English.
The Measures for the Employment and Management of Foreign Teachers, issued by China's Ministry of Education on July 21, has been submitted for public comments until August 21 before final approval.
The draft guidelines recommend that education authorities in China establish a social credit system for foreign teachers. Those teachers whose behavior is found to be in accordance with Chinese laws and who teach ethically and well will have that recorded in the social credit system, and those with unfavorable behavior would have it recorded as well.
The social credit system is aimed at standardizing citizens' behavior. People with poor social credit scores in China who are designated as "untrustworthy" could be denied train or air tickets.
First-time foreign teachers would have to receive 20 hours of ideology training on the Chinese constitution and regulations. Foreign teachers would also be banned from "illegally engaging in religious education."
In 2017, China's Administration of Foreign Experts Affairs estimated that of the 400,000 foreign citizens teaching in the country, only one-third had valid work permits.
The authorities launched training center inspections across the country in late 2018, which have intensified in the years since to create a "cleaner education environment."
VOA contacted two major agencies, Go Overseas and Teach English Global, to learn how the new draft regulation would impact their foreign teachers in China. Both service agencies did not respond to VOA's comment for request.
US Accuses China of Intensifying Religious Repression Annual report finds religious freedom under assault throughout world, notably in what State Department calls Countries of Particular Concern such as Iran, North Korea
Want to stay in China? Watch what you say
Qin Weiping, a political commentator based in the U.S., said the toughening rules have something to do with the current U.S.-China relations and the countries' ideological differences.
"The Chinese government thinks these foreign teachers are bringing free ideas and universal values. Authorities have to prevent ideas such as color revolution or peaceful evolution that can be passed from learning English," he said.
"Color revolution" is a term used to describe popular protest movements around the world that have swept governments out of power.
The Reuters news agency cited Nick Baker, an Australian teacher who recently left China after working for six years in international schools, as saying he was told "not to discuss the protests in Hong Kong because we were being watched by the authorities."
He said his school was ordered to present curriculum material to local officials for review.
Foreign teachers in China have said that they are ordered not to discuss anything sensitive in the classroom, including the Tiananmen massacre, the status of Taiwan and China's oppressive behavior in Xinjiang.
"If teachers want to stay in China, they will just have to watch what they say," Baker said.
Zhan Jiang, a professor of journalism at Beijing Foreign Studies University, told VOA that there is the issue of ensuring proper qualifications among foreign teachers in China.
"But all these years we haven't encountered major problems, because these teachers have sufficed the need for Chinese people to learn English, particularly in second- or third-tier cities," the professor said.
Lack of protection
Apart from a lack of academic freedom, experts warn that foreign teachers don't have adequate legal protections in terms of visas, employment contracts, medical care and landlord issues.
Grace Yang, an attorney specializing in international business and China law at the Seattle-based law firm Harris Bricken, told VOA that it's risky for foreigners to teach in China.
"They don't have a lot of income. If they got involved in labor contract disputes, they often cannot afford to hire lawyers to represent their interests," Yang said.
According to Go Overseas, an online resource for teaching, studying and volunteering opportunities abroad, the typical salary for a first-year ESL schoolteacher in China is $1,200 a month, with salary ranges up to $2,800 to $4,300 if one lands a job in a private or international school.
Yang added that the employment contract is a big challenge for foreign teachers. "You should review not only one but both English and Chinese versions of your employment contract. Sometimes a foreign teacher would find out that the version he/she thinks is legit is not enforceable according to Chinese law," she told VOA.
Dan Harris, a leading authority on Chinese law and an attorney at the same law firm, wrote an op-ed in 2019 urging Americans not to teach English in China. He said that since 2018, there has been a huge increase in emails from foreign teachers in China seeking legal help with visa, employment contract, medical and landlord issues.
What about learning English?
English teaching has a huge market in China. The China Science News reported that more than 300 million people in China are learning English. English classes, mandated by the Ministry of Education, cost nearly 164 billion RMB (about $24 billion) annually.
Yet as China's relationship with the U.S. and other major English-speaking countries worsens, some worry the situation will mirror what happened in the 1960s, when passion to learn Russian sharply decreased after ties between Beijing and Moscow deteriorated.
Commentator Qin Weiping said there's a possibility that English might be less important if China keeps its aggressive foreign policy and is further isolated by the U.S. and other major economies down the road.
Professor Zhan Jiang disagreed, saying that the current situation was temporary.
"Some kids can't go abroad, and some international students can't come back. There are lot of reasons - COVID-19, Sino-U.S. relations. But I think most Chinese students will still learn English as their second language. That trend won't change," he told VOA.
Li Ping, parent of a Beijing student, told VOA that he still wanted his child to learn English well, so he has the opportunity to go to the U.S. for further education. He added that he thought China's current foreign policy and international environment would change one day. "We must invest in education," he said.