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Visa Regs Shifting for ESL Teachers in China?
Or Is It Just Pre-Olympics Jitters?
Tensions are rising in China as the 2008 Olympics season draws near. In
early August, a team of six Western protestors (who unfurled a huge
banner along a stretch of the Great Wall of China) and a young
Canadian-Tibetan blogger ( joined forces to
distract attention from a ceremonial visit of the 2008 Olympic Committee
to Beijing. After a brief stay under official custody, the seven were
deported to Hong Kong, and from there traveled safely home to friends
and family.
On the Yahoo Group "TEFLChinaJob," a flurry of messages recently
surfaced, suggesting that thousands of Westerners teaching English in
China also will be facing more careful scrutiny over the coming weeks
and months. "Today I received an email from the US Embassy," wrote
one group member. "It tells about visa rules being tightened."
The gist of the new, stricter interpretation of regulations by Chinese
authorities, according to this message, is that people who travel to China
under a tourist visa can no longer convert it to a work visa once they are
inside the country. There were several replies suggesting that many ESL
programs in China process on-site work permits and get their teachers'
tourist visas changed to working visas as a matter of course, but newly
hired teachers preparing to fly to China are feeling a little skittish these
One way that schools in China are handling the problem is by sending
newly arrived teachers back out of the country, to either Macau or Hong
Kong, and it is reported that these individuals return promptly with their
work visas approved. It was also suggested by several TEFLChinaJob
group members that the rule against changing a tourist visa to a work
visa is not a new one, and that the current nervous online exchanges
regarding this topic are actually a yearly phenomenon. Also, it is
rumored that a tourist (L) visa can be converted to a business (F) visa
without leaving China, according to one e-mail posting, and then the F
visa might be converted to a work (Z) visa or a school might employ a
teacher on an F visa, although "it's not totally legal."
"There is not one educational institution in China that can LEGALLY get 
a tourist visa changed to a work visa in mainland China," wrote another
teacher, "as it is totally against the law."
There are also new visa services online, according to a ChinaTEFLJob
discussion group member, "some of them...offering Z visas for first-time
applicants [if you] submit your passport and well as the
contract with your employer." These online sites are supposed to be
based in Shanghai and Beijing.
Another e-mail suggested that, although "you should not come to China
on a tourist visa and hope to get it changed to a Z visa or residence
permit," it is also true that in Xinjiang Autonomous Region and the
Karamay District, "because of oil and gas money and the close
association with schools, it is easy to change a tourist visa into a Z or a
residence permit."
"Confusion arises," said another ESL teacher in China, "because each
province has great latitude in interpreting and enforcing the visa laws
and the SAFEA (State Administration of Foreign Experts Affairs)
regulations....Even in strict Liaoning and Jilin, under the right
circumstances, the regs have been waived."
"For those law abiding, wishing employment in China, just follow the
rules," advised that same ESL teacher, "and [unfounded] rumors of visa
changes will have no impact on you." He pointed prospective teachers to
several useful Web sites for clear, factual information:
Foreign Expert Regulations
Chinese Visa System Overview
The warning for U.S. compatriots teaching in China was apparently in
response to many Americans who have arrived on tourist visas "pulling
midnight runners," which seems to refer to the practice of getting a
school to sponsor a work visa and then "running" with the document to a
different school.
The 2007-2008 school year in China is certain to be an unforgettable
experience for English teachers, their students, and hundreds of
thousands of other members of the global community preparing for the
2008 Olympics. 
Obviously, the government in China and the people of China are going
to be concerned, as hosts, to make their nation as beautiful and
welcoming as possible. Yet there is a political side to the Olympics, and
both the government and opposition--from "Team Tibet" to prodemocracy
forces in Hong Kong and free-spirited Taiwanese-- will be
jockeying to position themselves to make political statements at a time
when so much attention is focused on this region.
The imaginative protest by those who unfurled the "One World, One
Dream, Free Tibet" banners at Mt. Everest several months ago and, more
recently, at the Great Wall of China, suggest that the battle of words and
ideas leading up to the 2008 Olympics will be pitched on a level never
before seen. It is truly a rare opportunity for Westerners and others living
and working in China to witness history in the making.
This would seem to be a time to take extreme care in obtaining the
correct visa and other documents if you are planning to teach in China.
By Robb Scott
Editor, ESL MiniConference Online
2007 ESL MiniConference Online
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