"Wish You Happy Every Day": An Expat's Life in China

How to Get Kicked Out of China
May 11, 2013, 8:30 pm
Filed under: visas and other legal matters | Tags:

If I’m having a conversation with someone I’ve just met and the conversation is going nowhere fast, I sometimes pull this anecdote out of my hat:

ME: I lived in China for two years.
OTHER PERSON: Wow! What was that like?
ME: Great! (Note: the one word answer is because how do you answer this question without talking for hours?) But I got kicked out.

After all, how many people can say they’ve gotten kicked out of a country, much less what we Americans think of as a totalitarian, Stalinistic, eating-dogs-for-breakfast kind of country (why, by the way, isn’t true)?

The truth is, I wasn’t a Super Activist Enemy of the Chinese Government by any means. At my job, I was forbidden to speak of the three T’s – Tiananmen, Tibet and Taiwan. I knowingly signed a contract that forbade me from doing this, and I abided by it; if one of the three T’s came up in class, I omitted the word from my sentence: “In Beijing, I visited BEEEEEEEP” or “The monks are burning themselves in BEEEEEP” or “BEEEEEEP has its own currency, government and economy, but it’s still part of China. Sorta.”

Rather, I was young, naïve, and made a big but probably common mistake.

I was working on an illegal visa.

I got kicked out almost a year ago, in June of 2012. Basically, my employer had used their guanxi to procure a Z visa and a fake Foreign Experts Certificate. I’m not exactly sure why, but I suspect that Liaoning Province has certain requirements for a foreign teacher and I didn’t meet them, or perhaps the school decided that this was a more cost-effective way to hire foreign teachers.

You hear about these kind of stories about schools that are not on the up and up, schools that only newbies work for because the seasoned expats know better, often through first-hand experience. But this school has a center in nearly every major Chinese city. It has a reputation, among Chinese people, as being one of the better (and pricier) English training schools.

If you want to know which school this was, you can email me. The reason why I don’t reveal it here is because there isn’t really any point. The fact is, China is a society that runs on clout and corruption; no school, or very few schools, are entirely legit.

Schools obviously don’t want to get caught because it would cost them money, but the consequences can be much graver for the teachers. It’s possible that you could get blacklisted, which means you wouldn’t be allowed back to China for 5 years, or like me, just sent back home to re-apply with another employer. The immigration officer who marked my visa with a “visa revoked” stamp told me this: “You are responsible for your own visa.”

So, to all those looking to teach in China, beware: this is entirely true, at least in the eyes of the law. In reality, it’s very hard for foreign teachers to know exactly what goes on with their visa, as it is your employer’s job to get the necessary documents for a visa. I had no idea that I was working illegally until halfway into my first year, when I was idly looking at my Foreign Experts Certificate. Under “Position,” it said “Manager”—IN CHINESE. So, if you don’t read Chinese, how would you know that? And, after I figured that out, what was I supposed to do? Break the contract with my school, which invites a host of other possible problems? Go directly to the immigration office and effectively self-deport?

I asked around, found that this was not a terribly uncommon condition, and ignored it. And got caught later.

What can you do to ensure that your visa is legit? Here are a few things that I wish I had done earlier:

Comply with the necessary requirements for foreign teachers in your province. In Liaoning, that means 2 years of teaching experience, a BA, a teaching certificate, and you must be 25 years of age. At the time, I had no teaching experience and I was 22-23. That could have been the problem.
Only sign a contract with reputable schools. OK, so probably no school in China is 100% reputable, but some are definitely more on the up and up than others. Generally, those that are based outside of China are more reputable; local schools are a little shadier. If you’re in Beijing or Shanghai, English First (EF) might be a good choice.
If the school asks you to come to China on anything except a Z visa, don’t even bother with that school. A school should never ask this of you because they know that you can ONLY legally work on a Z visa. If a school asks you to do this, write them back and tell them that you’re not interested in coming to China after all. Then apply for a job at another school.
But more importantly, make sure your school is rich in guanxi. At the end of the day, it really doesn’t matter how many centers around China your school has, or what clean white boards it has, or how wealthy the students are. What really matters is its relationship with the local police force. For example, the first school I worked for was perfectly shady in many ways: it encouraged prospective teachers to enter China and work on a tourist visa, it procured a Z visa for me to work as a manager (I was definitely not) and it even used foreign teachers’ passports to buy and register cars for some unknown shady character. Yet an immigration looked me in the eye and told me that this was an honest school, even though one look at the visa could tell him it wasn’t. So how do you know which school has good, solid guanxi? Unfortunately, the only way to do that is to get your boots on the ground and ask around.

Given that it’s entirely possible to accidentally work on an illegal visa, you should never assume that everything’s all right just because you made it past customs. You can take the following steps to ensure that your stay in China is, well, semi-guaranteed:

Read the fine print of your visa and Foreign Experts Certificate, or if you don’t read Chinese, have someone else do it for you. This is how I discovered the truth about my visa.
Don’t teach at any school EXCEPT the one where you work. It’s easy to get extra hours at mom and pop English schools, and it’s tempting for those who need the extra cash. Many people do it and never get caught; but I did it and I DID get caught. If I hadn’t accepted a Saturday morning teaching post at my friend’s new and unlicensed school, I would probably still be in China now. If you need more money, do one-on-one tutoring on your own.
Don’t associate with shady expats. There are a lot of people doing illegal things in China, like drug dealing, for example. I think it’s common sense to keep a distance from these people, especially if you are concerned about your status in China.
Basically, don’t do anything that would call attention to yourself or attract the police’s attention. Even if you are here illegally, if the police don’t see it, they don’t usually care.

Please keep in mind, I’m not writing this to discourage people from coming to work in China. Plenty of foreigners have a perfectly secure working status. But since the Chinese government believes that you are responsible for your visa, I think it’s important to have the tools that would allow you to take that responsibility.

As for me, I plan to go back at the end of the month! Yes, really! I got the letter of invitation from what appears to be a legit school, and I’m preparing to bring them to the consulate. Now, will I get the visa or will I be turned down? I think the fact that I got the letter of invitation in the first place is a good sign, so I’m trying to be positive. Fingers crossed!