Class dismissed: Surge in arrests of foreign teachers in China

By Cate Cadell

BEIJING, August 13 (Reuters) – Arrests and deportations of foreign teachers in China have soared this year, lawyers, schools and teachers say, amid a broad crackdown defined by new police tactics and Beijing’s push for a “cleaner”, more patriotic education system.

Four law firms told Reuters that requests for representation involving foreign teachers had surged in the past six months by between four and tenfold, while teachers and schools confirmed arrests and temporary detentions for minor crimes had become commonplace.

Switzerland-based Education First (EF), which runs 300 schools across 50 Chinese cities, has seen a “significant” increase in detentions in China for alleged offences including drugs, fighting and cybersecurity violations, according to a June 27 internal notice sent to employees and seen by Reuters.

It said EF staff had been “picked up by police at their home and work as well as in bars and nightclubs and have been questioned and brought in for drug testing”. The notice said the school had also received warnings from embassies about the rise in arrests.

A spokeswoman for EF declined to comment on the content of the notices but said the company “values our close collaboration with the Chinese authorities,” adding that it “regularly reminds staff of important regulatory and compliance policies.”

An international school in Beijing and a teaching agency in Shanghai separately confirmed arrests had risen sharply.

“There’s tremendous pressure for them to keep things clean. It’s all part of (President) Xi Jinping’s idea to make sure that China can show a good face for the rest of the world,” said Peter Pang, principal attorney at the IPO Pang Xingpu Law Firm in Shanghai, which represents foreign teachers in disputes.

China’s Public Security Bureau and Ministry of Education did not respond to requests for comment.

The detentions come amid growing tensions between China and western countries, including the United States and Australia.

China had roughly 400,000 foreign citizens working in its education industry in 2017, the last year for which official figures are available, working in schools, colleges and language institutes.

The industry has long been plagued by abuses on both sides, with many foreign teachers in China working without proper visas and some schools taking advantage of that vulnerability.

Lawyers said a rising backlash against foreign influence in China’s fiercely nationalistic education system means even qualified teachers are increasingly vulnerable to exploitation.

LOVE EDUCATION, LOVE THE MOTHERLAND

Many of the legal cases involving foreign teachers are linked to new and enhanced drug-testing measures, including testing methods that can track drug use over a longer time, such as surprise inspections at teacher’s homes and workplaces, lawyers said.

Three former teachers from two schools in Beijing and Shanghai who were detained for between 10 and 30 days before being deported this year say authorities drug-tested teachers multiple times within weeks of arrival and conducted extensive interrogations.

One of the three, a 25-year-old Florida man who was deported in May after a 10-day detention in a Beijing jail, said he and a colleague underwent a urine screening on their first day in China, which came back clean, but were detained after a surprise workplace test two weeks later showed traces of cannabis in his hair.

“I didn’t touch a single drug in China,” said the man, declining to share his full name because he is currently looking for a job in the United States.

Hair tests can detect cannabis for up to 90 days, meaning teachers that come from countries where the drug is legal, including parts of the United States, are especially vulnerable.

“The problem with hair testing is that it can detect cannabis from months prior,” said Dan Harris, Seattle-based managing partner of law firm Harris Bricken, whose firm saw a steep rise in case requests involving foreign teachers beginning earlier this year.

The behavior of foreign teachers in China was thrust into the spotlight last month when 19 foreign citizens, including seven who worked for EF, were arrested in the eastern city of Xuzhou on drug charges.

The case drew fierce criticism in state media, which echoed earlier calls by Beijing to push for the eradicating of foreign influences from the country’s schools.

Last September, China launched a wide-reaching campaign to remove foreign influences from education, including efforts to ban foreign history courses, outlaw self-taught material and revise textbooks to focus on core Communist Party ideology.

The ongoing effort, which includes follow-up checks and random inspections at schools, is designed to promote “patriotism” and “core socialist values”, reflecting a “love for the motherland”, China’s education ministry said at the time.

RISKS OUTWEIGH REWARDS

Lawyers said rising anti-foreigner sentiment in Chinese education and a glut of teachers mean expats are also more likely to be exposed to non-criminal legal issues, including schools docking pay, refusing to provide documentation for visas and changing contracts without warning.

“When (schools) get a lot of applications they feel they are in a commanding position,” said Pang, whose firm has handled dozens of labor arbitrations between teachers and schools in recent months.

Emily, a 25-year old English teacher from the U.S. state of Utah, said a school in the southwestern Chinese city of Chengdu held her passport for 10 weeks in late 2018, refusing to hand it back until she threatened to call police.

“There was always an excuse, like registering my dorm with police or some administration to transfer my visa … at one point they just said they were keeping it safe,” she said, asking not to publish her full name or the name of the school because of an ongoing arbitration.

The Chengdu school did not respond to phone calls by Reuters. The HR employee who Emily said had held her passport confirmed she had worked at the school, but declined to comment on the case via a messaging app.

The school docked her 16,000 yuan ($2,269) monthly salary by 1,200 yuan for an unexpected “agency” fee, according to documents provided to her by the school before and after her arrival.

Lawyers say the practice is not unusual, and arbitration typically costs more than the withheld wages.

“What has changed is that many government officials think that kicking out Western influences like English teachers is doing the Party’s work, and the schools are taking advantage of it” said Harris, the Seattle lawyer, who now advises against foreigners teaching in China. “The risks of going to China to teach far outweigh the rewards.”

(Reporting by Cate Cadell; Editing by Tony Munroe and Alex Richardson)

Fed policymakers call for caution on further U.S. rate hikes

FILE PHOTO: A police officer keeps watch in front of the U.S. Federal Reserve building in Washington, DC, U.S. on October 12, 2016. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque/File Photo

By Jonathan Spicer and Howard Schneider

RIVERWOODS, Ill./CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (Reuters) – Another clutch of U.S. Federal Reserve policymakers said on Wednesday they would be cautious about raising interest rates without getting better a handle on how growing risks to an otherwise solid U.S. economic outlook could play out.

After months of tumult in the stock market, presidents of four of the 12 Fed regional banks said they wanted greater clarity on the state of the economy before extending the central bank’s rate hike campaign any further.

Three of the four, Charles Evans of Chicago, Eric Rosengren of Boston, and James Bullard of St. Louis, are voting members this year on the Federal Open Market Committee, the bank’s policy-setting panel.

Bullard has long been critical of the Fed’s rate increases, begun in December 2015, but the caution from Evans and Rosengren is new, even if they both believe growth will remain solid and rates will probably need to rise more.

The fourth president, Raphael Bostic of Atlanta, said there was no urgency to raise rates further at this juncture.

The remarks from the four come less than a week after Fed Chairman Jerome Powell eased market concerns that policy makers were ignoring signs of an economic slowdown. Powell said he was aware of the risks and would be patient and flexible in policy decisions this year.

Rosengren on Wednesday used those same two adjectives, while Evans said he would be “cautious.”

The new tone comes after the U.S. stock market dropped precipitously in the fourth quarter of 2018, suffering its worst December performance since the Great Depression. Other signs of tightening financial conditions surfaced as well, including a sharp slowdown in issuance of corporate bonds.

Short-term U.S. interest-rate futures are now pricing in less than a 2 percent chance of a rate hike this year, and traders see a one-in-four chance of a rate cut by next January.

That stands in stark contrast to forecasts from the Fed released after the central bank’s fourth 2018 rate hike in December. Those forecasts called for two more rate hikes this year.

Evans has been among the most vocal backers of gradually tightening U.S. monetary policy, and after a speech in Riverwoods, Illinois, on Wednesday told reporters he still believes the Fed will need to deliver three more rate hikes this year.

But, in his first public comments since November, he nodded to an array of “tough-to-read” factors highlighted by the recent market selloff, but penciled in a forecast for reasonably good U.S. growth and employment in 2019 and beyond.

Rosengren similarly said he expects solid growth this year and said he suspects financial markets are “unduly pessimistic.” But in a break from speeches last year, when he emphasized the risks of allowing unemployment to stay below sustainable levels for too long, Rosengren on Wednesday emphasized risks that could impinge on growth, and said he was taking on board the cautionary signals from falling stock markets.

“There should be no particular bias toward raising or lowering rates until the data more clearly indicate the path for domestic and international economic growth,” Rosengren told the Boston Economic Club. “I believe we can wait for greater clarity before adjusting policy.”

Bullard, meanwhile, told the Wall Street Journal that while the Fed had “a good level of the policy rate today,” there was no rush to push them higher.

Minutes from that meeting will be released later on Wednesday and could shed more light on how policy makers assessed the economy as they agreed to raise rates and, at that time, projected two more increases in 2019..

Overall, that marked the ninth increase of a quarter percentage point since December 2015, when the Fed began lifting interest rates from near zero, where they had been since the financial crisis in 2008.

Atlanta Fed President Raphael Bostic, who earlier this week said the Fed was likely to need at most a single rate increase this year, on Wednesday elaborated on that view as driven by conversations with business executives, who say they have become more defensive in preparing for slower growth by paying down debt and holding off on new plans.

Those conversations “are not consistent with the business sector ramping up,” Bostic said in remarks prepared for delivery to the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce. Bostic, who backed all four rate hikes in 2018 as an FOMC voter, does not have a policy vote on the panel this year.

(Reporting by Howard Schneider in Chattanooga and Jonathan Spicer in Chicago; with reporting by Ann Saphir in San Francisco and Trevor Hunnicutt in New York; Writing by Dan Burns; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)