Moving into 2020, China was an expanding hub for expat educators keen for competitive packages, adventure and cultural experiences.
Branded school networks had tapped into the Chinese market and the expanding middle class continued to provide no end of clientele. Indeed, the number of British schools alone in China grew by an impressive 41.03 per cent in 2020, according to Venture Education’s British Schools in China report.
2021, however, saw a combination of factors, including the pandemic, reduce this growth to 16.36 per cent. The schools market is still technically growing, albeit at a much slower rate, but the pool of expat teachers is not. Frustrations with restricted travel and separation from loved ones have led the reasons for the exodus out of the country over the last year.
“Restricted travel and separation from loved ones have led the reasons for the exodus.”
However, a number of educators have decided to stay on, and often with good reason. The Chinese population census is taken every decade and the most recent results were released in May 2021. The growth in expat numbers was consistent in most regions, particularly the southern provinces of Guangdong (with the highest total number of expats), and Yunnan (showing the most rapid growth with an eightfold increase).
Despite the overall increase, expat numbers decreased in both Shanghai and Beijing, with Shanghai dropping from 209,000 to 164,000 and Beijing from 107,000 to 63,000. Over 2022, it would appear that the exodus has only gained further momentum, as flights out of China become available and two-year contracts signed before the pandemic expire.
Reasons to leave the major centres pre-date the pandemic, and include rising costs of living, the beginnings of “localisation” in the education industry, legislative changes promoting Chinese-style education, and the looming threat of the expiration of expat tax benefits (now hastily pushed back to December 2023).
“There are mixed levels of acceptance amongst expat teachers regarding the Covid control policy.”
Zero Covid policy has just added to this trend and, for some teachers at least, the ongoing grind of 48-hour testing, travel restrictions and the threat of lockdown has been too much to consider staying.
There are mixed levels of acceptance amongst expat teachers with regards to the Chinese Covid control policy. What is certain, though, is that most feel safer from the virus under the restrictions than they would in their home countries.
“Although it can be frustrating at times, I don’t worry about any of us catching the virus. Even when there is an ‘outbreak’, the numbers of cases are still incredibly low,” says a middle manager in the process of leaving Beijing.
Of more concern to most residents, especially in the major cities, is the “changing colour” of the health kit app, indicating contact or secondary contact with a reported case. This can result in denied access to public transport, shops and possible quarantine time.
“Some expat teachers are poised to take advantage of evident staff shortages.”
Katherine*, an Early Years teacher who has signed on for another year in Beijing, was recently approached in her classroom by a senior colleague and asked to collect her things quickly and be ready to undertake lockdown. It transpired that contacts of a known Covid case had been traced to her compound. “It was four days. Luckily it wasn’t longer and we did get out – no-one else tested positive or anything. That family had to go to a ‘hotel’,” she grimaces, referring to the quarantine facilities famous for their wide-ranging levels of comfort.
Working in China still has many upsides, though. Some expat teachers are poised to take advantage of evident staff shortages. When asked about the reasons for staying in China, Manuela*, a secondary maths teacher and veteran of the international system, replied “One word – ambition. It’s easy to climb the ladder with a small gene pool.”
Indeed, many schools in China appear to be scrambling for staff and anecdotal evidence suggests that it is a good time to negotiate with recruiters regarding job titles, responsibility points and sign-on bonuses.
“Many remaining expats have financial goals as their motivation for staying.”
It is no coincidence that such bonuses often match the retention bonuses that a staff member may forfeit when breaking contract to join a new employer. Of course, school leaders are unlikely to talk freely about difficulties recruiting but all indicators suggest that China is presently very much a jobseekers’ market.
With the jobs come money and many remaining expats have financial goals as their motivation for staying. This often involves forfeiting what opportunities are left for travel. Gabriel, a primary middle leader starting his fifth year in China is determined to pool his money until he leaves, rather than engage with the currently inflated airfares.
“Is it twenty grand I’m going to spend and all I’m going to get for it is two weeks in England? My commitment is when I go home at sixty, or whenever I do, I want to walk into a home that I own that no-one can take away from me. I didn’t grow up with money…I’m here for money, one hundred percent.”
“I am conditioned to the lack of freedom in that way, but I don’t necessarily hate it, says Gabriel.”
Indeed, the standard of living in China remains a drawcard for teachers struggling on teaching salaries in their home countries. “My life is pretty good but, unless you live here, you don’t know that,” he affirms.
For those considering a move to China, knowledge is power. Some teachers warn of the risk of being sold sanitised versions of day-to-day life by potential employers. For many, however, the sugar-coating is not necessary.
Gabriel maintains that the conditions are different to other countries, but are still easily tolerated: “I always use the analogy of the frog in hot water. You change the environment around us and we adapt. You know what? I am conditioned to the lack of freedom in that way, but I don’t necessarily hate it. People don’t realise that. I think there’s a skewed view of China.”
The cultural differences, though, are further exacerbated by dwindling expat numbers. Katherine admits that the language barrier can be tiring. “These are the things that get to me now, being here five years and not being able to grasp Mandarin still. It’s a basic, just being able to walk out your door and communicate properly”. What is clear is that while travel restrictions have certainly eased, it will be a long time before expat workers are flying in and out at pre-Covid frequency. For some willing to make some short term sacrifices and the familiarity of home, though, it might be the land of opportunity.