Favoring Foreigners

There is a reason that when the topic of racism in China comes up, many Chinese think of the preferential treatment foreigners sometimes receive, rather than anything else. (including famous lawyer Liu Xiaoyuan, who told us “Chinese law gives foreigners all sorts of special privileges” when we contacted him for this post). In reading about the KaiEn English fiasco, I found a pretty good example.

The short version of what seems like a rather over-dramatized story is that the heads of a Shanghai English school ran out of money and left the school more or less overnight, leaving a trail of unpaid employees and untaught students who had already paid tuitions in their wake. I have absolutely no interest in entering into the speculation about whose fault this is, or how (if at all) it’s connected to ChinesePod. I did, however, find this sentence from the Shanghai Daily rather interesting:

Foreign teachers of KaiEn English Training Center, which closed suddenly earlier this week, will receive 20 to 30 percent of their lost salary tomorrow as the first batch of life aid, the Chinese partner of the joint institution announced today.

Chinese staff and students were told to wait until the financial situation of the school was figured out.


Foreign teachers said that they are owed at least 2 months of salary ranging from 12,000 yaun to 40,000 yuan, even higher.

Chinese teachers’ salaries were delayed even longer on average, though their monthly wage is lower.

Obviously, everyone involved deserves to be paid — in full — for the work that they did, but honestly examining the situation, wouldn’t it make more sense to pay the Chinese teachers before the foreigners? After all, the foreigners were making more money. If KaiEn’s payment works like many of the English schools in China, foreign staff were probably payed somewhere between two to six times the salary of the Chinese staff (and they probably worked fewer hours than the Chinese staff, too). Aren’t the foreign teachers thus more likely to be able to hold out for a bit longer without salary than the Chinese staff who were being paid less? And frankly, aren’t they going to have an easier time finding other work as an English teacher than the Chinese staff probably are?

Now, to be fair, I have no special knowledge about the workings of KaiEn English specifically, nor do I know anyone who worked there personally. Given that, perhaps it’s best to put the question to you: wouldn’t it have made more sense to pay the Chinese staff first, or to pay everyone a smaller amount at the same time? Why were the foreigners paid first?

0 thoughts on “Favoring Foreigners”

  1. Agreed. I understand that people are upset, and rightly so, but it’s distressing to see the Chinese staff — who have gone much longer without pay — totally ignored. It’s not just KaiEn. This rift between foreign and Chinese staff exists in many workplaces here — I’m often guilty of perpetuating it myself. I hope this is something we, as expats, can work more on overcoming. I personally feel like there needs to be a lot more listening and a lot less telling Chinese people how things should be run or how we do it in our home countries. Thanks for raising this issue.


  2. I completely agree on principal.

    So I wonder why this is being done, is there a business reason?
    1. Does whoever is paying the foreign teachers gain greater value from placating them first, for example is a foreign teacher seen as more able to pursue the owners in an international setting, while local teachers are stuck in a domestic environment?
    2. Does the Chinese partner want to retain the foreign teachers more than domestic teachers (maybe they’re a harder hire?) for continuing a venture?

    I would point out that the Chinese Labour Law recently enacted applies to foreigners as much as it does to locals.


  3. “Does the Chinese partner want to retain the foreign teachers more than domestic teachers … for continuing a venture?”

    Clearly they do, and probably so they can attract larger numbers of fee-paying students before folding the new venture and splitting with the cash. This is not an isolated case.


  4. If you would go further with that argument, you’d arrive at the conclusion that they should’ve had equal salaries from the start.
    What it all comes down to is: Should employees have different salaries at all?


  5. @ laban: Not necessarily. Which is to say not at all.

    It makes sense, in some cases, that the foreigners make more money than the Chinese teachers. Assuming their teaching abilities are equal (which they aren’t always, of course) the foreigners have more to offer students because of their native accent. “Foreign teachers” bring parents to YOUR English school instead of the one down the block. The English school I used to work for in China had the motto “全外教“ (“all foreign teachers”) and it worked. Now, does that value mean they should be paid six times what the Chinese teachers make? No. But paying some employees more because they are more qualified (which is what we’re talking about here, even though most of these guys got “qualified” for the job by being born in the right place) is something everyone does, and it makes sense. Other places are willing to pay them more, too, so you pay them a higher salary to keep them working for YOU.

    When the company has already gone under and you’re passing out overdue salaries, though, none of that reasoning applies. All things being equal, the lower-paid employees ought to get paid first, and that’s even more true if they also have been without salaries for a longer period of time. At least, everyone should be paid at the same time. There’s no reason to pay the foreigners first.


  6. Interesting news! I previously worked for a language mill – Canilx – that pulled a similar midnight run. In that case, I quit (on good terms and with no reservations about the company) and was back in the states when I heard that the school had closed leaving students and staff in the lurch. Same situation as KaiEn, seemingly – students came to school one day and poof! desaparecido.

    There were public protests outside the offices of Canlix owners and there were newspaper articles, maybe even a tv spot. It saddens me to see that despite 3 years of law reform this sort of crap still happens and in such an identical way.

    Chinesepod maintains offices and staff in Sh, perhaps they should have their accounts frozen until some sense can be made of all this. I don’t know if Ken Carroll still owns Chinesepod, but he is certainly still involved in running it, correct? If KaiEn was like Wall Street, Canilx, Web, etc, they tried to get students to pay for months up front, so I actually believe that payouts should be dispersed on amount owed and monies lost first, not nationality. That the Chinese staff made less so they should get paid first doesn’t fly; their employment was tied to their legality to work. Foreign staff have to leave the country, right? I am not making a case for foreigners to be paid first, just saying that it’s more complex than pandering to ideas of class and nationality.

    Man, Ken Carrol and his medicine show…
    That’s all I’ll say for now, until more becomes known.


  7. During the five years I taught English, I learned that Chinese employees will tolerate a lot more abuse from their superiors than foreign teachers. If the school wanted to retain the foreign teachers, they would definitely have to pay them to keep them, or of course they would walk. It would only be a short time before they found other positions. The Chinese teachers, however, I bet they can get by on a month or two of promises before they finally start hunting for a new job.
    I always found it strange because my Chinese co-workers would complain about the same things that bothered the native-speaking English teachers–long hours, delayed pay, last minute changes to the schedule, but we would always bring it up with our employers while they would diligently go about their work, even if they were grumbling under their breath. Vast differences in culture…
    And if the Chinese teachers at that school are anything like every other team of Chinese teachers at every school I’ve seen, it’s a bunch of 20-something single women who are still living at home with their parents. They don’t have rent to pay, they don’t have to worry about having enough money for bills and groceries. Very few foreigners living here have the kind of social network that could support you through a sudden loss of income, and honestly, as much as foreign teachers make, are they making enough to save after the Western meals, the nights at the bar, and the pricey rent?
    It’s not fair, but the school did what probably every school would have done.


  8. When I worked for a company run by a Chinese couple, they would treat me and all the other Chinese employees like garbage. We were expected to work overtime everyday, the managers could complain and even insult us, and funny thing is: most of us just took it on the chin like that. But all the employees that weren’t Chinese, even the Indians and a few blacks, they worked in the front of the building, did not have to do much, could leave at 6PM, and were paid more than us! And this isn’t even in China!

    Ah, because you can always demand more from your family than from outsiders.


  9. Why does it have to be one or the other? C. Custer, I’m disappointed that you got sucked into that idea, that if there isn’t enough money to go around, you have to pay some people now and make others wait.

    You don’t have to pay some people and not others. If there is a total of, say, 2,000,000 kuai owed to all employees, and the employer has 500,000 kuai to distribute, why not give each employee 25% of their salary? The people who make more get more, but everyone gets the same in terms of how much they are proportionally owed.

    This is China. We all should be screwed equally, which is the basis of “communism with Chinese characteristics,” in my opinion.


  10. @ Tony: From my post: “wouldn’t it have made more sense to pay the Chinese staff first, or to pay everyone a smaller amount at the same time?

    And the reason you might split it up and pay someone first rather than giving everyone a smaller sum is that the smaller sum might end up being so paltry that, if it’s split among all the employees, it helps exactly no one. Given that they’re talking about giving the foreign teachers 20-30%, and assuming that there are more Chinese people working for them than foreigners because the office staff, accounting, etc., would all be Chinese, my guess is that paying everyone would end up being something like 10% of their monthly salaries. Which I’m guessing is about enough for the Chinese staff, who probably make very little in the first place, to buy a bus ticket.

    @ Qili: So the foreigners should be paid extra because they’re used to a more expensive lifestyle? Not sure how that adds up, nor am I convinced most of the Chinese staff at these schools lives at home. Many of the women who worked at my school were young, but they all lived on their own and paid their own rent out of their (very small) salaries.


  11. Absolutely agree. All KaiEn should be treated equally and fairly, no preferential treatment for foreign teachers. So why are the Chinese business partners doing this? If I was a Chinese staff member I would be seeking legal action. If this happened in a western country, the unpaid employees could at least seek assistance from a union, and also through the law courts. I presume that in China, the workers have no union to stand up for them, and have no effective labour protection laws they can invoke. On the subject of racism, I would say it is more accurately described as customer-driven positive discrimination in favour of big noses. Interesting article on how Chinese-Americans are also subject to this Chinese aversion to being taught English by anyone with a Chinese face.


  12. “But all the employees that weren’t Chinese, even the Indians and a few blacks … were paid more than us!”

    Are you suggesting that is somehow more of an insult to Chinese teachers than paying caucasians more?


  13. Are you suggesting that is somehow more of an insult to Chinese teachers than paying caucasians more?

    Your Lordship never read, do you? Where did shuaige say he/she was a Chinese teacher? If anything, it sounded like an average company. Just because you have a malicious racial bias against the Chinese doesn’t mean other people are racists.


  14. @ cjjk: Whether or not he’s a teacher is sort of irrelevant. Saying “they even paid the blacks more!” makes it sound like he might be OK with them paying whites more, but having blacks make more is a hard pill to swallow. Which is pretty racist, whether he meant it that way or not.


  15. Yeah, you’re right. I shouldn’t have phrased it that way. There is simply a misconception that Chinese only treat whites differently, when in fact the same applies for anyone who’s NOT Chinese. The ancient concept of Hua-yi-zhi-bian (us and them) is well and alive even overseas. I forgot to mention there were other Asians, Filipinos and Koreans whom our Chinese boss would never dare yell at the way they do us.

    See, that’s exactly the problem. Chinese employees DON’T take action when discriminated by a Chinese employer. There is sort of a racial element to it. If a non-Chinese boss treats you badly, it’s seen as discrimination based on race. If a Chinese boss treats you badly, well then he’s just a jerk because you can’t slap racism on him since we’re the same race. Some people complain but put up with it anyway, some people are so used to it they think it’s normal. Me, I just found a better job.


  16. When I was a kid, my dad would take me, my sisters, and my cousins (who were over alot) out to the park. Every single time I asked him to by me some ice cream. He usually just said “not today”. One time, he straight up told me “son, I don’t have enough to buy everyone ice cream, and it wouldn’t be fair just to buy you some”.

    That’s pretty much my stand on it, pay’em all a little something equally.


  17. Yes, this is the only real form of “racism” in China that must be dealt with- special treatment for foreigners. No other country in the world does this.


  18. Gen Custer, quit cherry picking. There was a point Qili made and the part about the western meals and bars was not the main thrust of it. The ability for the locals to get economic help from families is something that most foreigners don’t have.


  19. Right, but international savings accounts is something that most locals don’t have. Pretty much every foreigner I knew in China still had cards from back home anyway, so they could easily get by on their own savings or just have some family members put money into their accounts at home.

    Plus, the point is, foreigners could reduce their living standards and still get by, assuming they had saved a little part of their salaries. Most of the Chinese staff, I’m guessing, couldn’t really reduce their living standards much further…


  20. Oh this is racism all right. Guess what category a British born Chinese fall into? Watch other Brits gets better pay and less hours while the local Chinese resent you.
    You ask your bosses to justify this discrepancy and they tell you it’s because they are foreigners. How the f*ck is that an excuse? Hey I’m a “foreigner” too. F*ck.
    And just when you think you are going to explode, some whiny faggy cnut like Stu*** starts bitching “Oh the Chinese are sooo rayciss”. Dammit.


  21. When I was a kid whenever I was at dispute with the neighbors’ kids I was always wrong to my mom. “有则改之,无则加勉” (a.k.a.: correct it if you were wrong, otherwise just be more self-disciplined), she said. Such attitude is widespread among Chinese to handle whatever disputes between “us” and “them”, whatever “us” and “them” mean. So this is indeed discrimination, reverse discrimination to be more precise. For “them”, this may feel more of a patronizing attitude, but it’s somehow culturally embedded I’m afraid.


  22. One fact has been forgotten in this discussion.

    Foreigners who come to China to teach are generally not rich. They in fact often borrow money from family or savings investments to get over to China. If, as in this situation, they have not been paid for a few months, they are essentially living off of borrowed money. Add that to the expensive nature of Shanghai. Add that to not having any family to lean on in Shanghai. Add that to not speaking the language nor knowing the culture. Add that to the fact that many have financial obligations back home. Remember that MOST westerners borrow money to go to University. This has to be paid back. Add that to the fact that foreigners have a more expensive lifestyle in China. Add that to the fact that paying them even a little gives face to China.

    They cannot go back to their mother’s house or rely on their husband/wife, like a Chinese teacher can. They don’t know where the “cheapest places” are to buy food and eat like Chinese do. They get scammed more often than Chinese do.

    This is probably why they got paid first.


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