Over the last few days, China's expat magazines and websites have been reporting the news that a large number of foreign English teachers have been detained for working without a Z (work) visa, or in some cases for using fake diplomas to obtain their visas. They will certainly be fined and may be deported. Although it is hard to separate facts from hearsay, it seems that Chinese police officers are being offered a reward of 2000 Yuan for every foreign teacher without the right visa they can bust.
Due to this incentive they have become very determined, and apparently have gone to the lengths of posting fake adverts for high-paying English teaching jobs on websites used by expats. They will then arrest people who present themselves to the interview if they don't have a Z visa (I don't really understand how it can be a crime to just go to a job interview, but anyway). They have also threatened the foreign teachers detained with 30 days in jail if they don't turn over all their phone contacts, some of whom will then supposedly be the victims of more checks.
When I first came to China, the general situation was that nobody really seemed to care what visa foreigners worked on. It was common for foreign students to round up their meagre scholarship allowances by teaching English part-time in schools. Although it is theoretically illegal for a foreigner to work and earn money on a student visa or anything other than a Z visa, in actuality nobody was bothered. Teachers working full-time on a business visas or even tourist visas were also quite common, and again it was very rare for anything bad to happen. As long as a foreigner didn't actually overstay their visa, nobody really seemed to mind if it didn't match their occupation.
There have of course been moments in the past when the authorities became stricter with foreigners. I have been in China long enough to remember the 2012 crackdown on foreigners "entering illegally, staying illegally and working illegally". I was never actually affected myself, but stories abounded of police randomly stopping foreigners on the street and demanding to see their passports, or raiding language schools and checking whether all the foreigners present had work visas. Although I was not yet in China at the time, the crackdown just before the Olympic games in 2008 is supposed to have been quite bad, with foreigners who had worked in China for years suddenly being refused visas and raids on bars where foreigners liked to gather.
The truth though is that those crackdown were only temporary, and in 2012 things were back to normal after about two or three months of the campaign beginning. The whole campaign gave me the feeling of being more of a show than a serious attempt to weed out foreigners on the wrong visa, although of course I stand to be corrected about this. Nowadays however, what we appear to be seeing is a serious, sustained attempt to kick out any foreigners who work here on the wrong visa. If police officers are being offered bonuses to catch illegal foreigners, then someone is pretty determined to make this happen.
Of course, it could be argued that the Chinese authorities have a perfect right to ensure that their visa regulations are respected. If you need a Z visa to work, then you should get a Z visa, right? As always however, things are not that simple and can be seen from a variety of angles. China is not a country where rules are clearcut and always followed. Rather, it is a country where rules are often unclear, selectively applied and ignored when it is considered convenient. This flexibility allows the authorities to get things done quickly and efficiently when they want to, but it also means that few people are ever completely clean and unassailable. Depending on how strict they decide to be, the government can pretty much choose to crackdown on anyone and anything they like.
There are a number of factors pushing foreigners to teach on the wrong visas in China. For one thing, Z visas are very hard to obtain, and only getting harder. Applicants need to have at least an undergraduate university degree, and they have to get hold of a criminal record certificate from their own country's police, an official letter by an employer proving two years of full-time work experience after graduation, translate all of the required documents into Chinese, and finally apply at their own country's Chinese embassy (it cannot be in a third country).
On the other hand, the demand for foreign English teachers in China is extremely high. Parents in cities all over the country are ready to fork out quite a bit of cash to have their children taught by a "native" English teacher (native very often meaning "white" in their minds). Often the employment of foreign English teachers is handled by third-party agencies that rent them out to schools. Given the difficulty and high costs associated with getting a work visa, agencies and schools have every incentive to hire foreigners who are in China on a business or student visa, and try and convince them that there is no risk involved.
What's more, there have been cases of agencies faking university diplomas for foreigners without a bachelor's degree so that they would be given a work visa. This is another thing which is being cracked down upon. There are also restrictions on the number of foreigners which Chinese companies can legally hire. Although I am not sure how this is applied to language schools, it may mean that schools cannot legally get work visas for as many foreign teachers as they would like.
There is thus a vast English teaching industry in which all players have an interest in cheating. The small army of foreign English teachers is also a most diverse one. The unfortunate stereotype of the Western reprobate who comes to China to teach English because they have nothing going for them back home or to get away from personal problems is probably true for some people, but certainly not in the majority of cases. There are the young Brits and Americans who do it a few years for the adventure. But there are also plenty of people coming from countries like Pakistan, the Philippines and South Africa teaching English in China, probably attracted by the relatively good money you can make.
I have also met people from countries like Ukraine and Russia, hardly famous for their English fluency, teaching English here. Years ago I met a Polish couple teaching English in a small town near Chongqing. They had passable English, and their agency had told them to introduce themselves to their high schools students as Jack and Martha, from England. As far as I know nobody doubted them. But while it is true that some foreign teachers may not speak English quite as well as advertised or may not be the best educators, there are certainly also employers that act dishonestly towards them. This is a field where standards are generally low on all sides.
Essentially, for years this hugely profitable industry was kept going on the understanding that nobody would care if foreigners worked in China without the appropriate visa. Now, however, the authorities have started to care. Of course China's vast size and chaotic development means that different people can have very different experiences. I am sure there are still plenty of foreigners teaching on the wrong visas, or places where the authorities have not started to make a fuss. Essentially, though, the trend is towards greater controls and strictness.
Basically what I see is a contrast between the demand for English language training in China and the sums parents are ready to spend on it, which remain vast, and the current tendency towards more control in all fields and stricter application processes and checks for foreigners who want to work China. If nothing else, when teaching English on the wrong visa becomes so risky it isn't worthwhile, legitimate and certified foreign teachers with the right visa might actually find themselves in better demand and able to earn more for their efforts.