They're laudable for decades of change

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Foreign teachers have played a unique role in the 60 years of the People's Republic of China. To a certain degree, their presence in China reflects the development of Chinese society and the relationship between China and the rest of the world. This group has grown rapidly in both size and impact on Chinese society with the passage of time.

During the first 10 years of New China, foreign teachers were mostly from the erstwhile Soviet Union and were generally called "Soviet consultants" or "Soviet experts". It was an era of Soviet influence because learning from the Soviet Union was New China's fundamental policy.

Soviet experts have exerted profound influence on Chinese education as their system of education and administration was once a model for China. Their influence can still be felt, even though all of them left China in August 1960 as Moscow and Beijing turned politically hostile toward each other. The time between that year and the end of the "cultural revolution" (1966-76) was a close-door period, with few foreign teachers coming to China.

Foreign experts reappeared in the country after 1978 when the reform and opening-up policy was adopted. The government launched a program, Project of Introduction of Foreign Intelligence, and foreign experts, mostly from developed countries, were employed in institutions to teach almost everything, from foreign languages to subjects in higher classes.

At the beginning of the opening-up period, the State Administration of Foreign Experts Affairs used to appoint all the foreign experts, who usually taught in colleges and universities. The government then drew a national plan to recruit foreign experts on a yearly basis, restating the rule of "employing few but essential".

Yet as time passed by and demand for expert teachers went up, the recruitment of foreign teachers became a regular practice, and their number kept growing. Only 117 long-term experts were employed in 1979, but their number more than doubled the next year to 257. In 1981, it rose to 401, and from 1986 to 1991, it was far more than 600 a year.

The 12 years from 1979 can be called an era of Western experts. All the foreign teachers were introduced as "foreign experts" regardless of their academic fields and their educational qualifications. Greater changes occurred after 1992, a turning point in the reform and opening-up drive, accelerating China's globalization process.

Foreign teachers have not increased only in numbers. Their composition and the extent of their impact on Chinese society have increased, too. After 1992, China gradually began recruiting foreigners beyond the position of experts.

In 1996, the Administrative Measures for Schools and Other Educational Institutions Employing Foreign Professionals replaced the term "foreign experts" with "foreign professionals", which refers to foreign experts and teachers, as well as foreign managers of joint ventures.

It was hard to imagine even 20 years ago that so many foreigners would come to China. The policy and the social attitude toward foreign teachers are more open today than in 1992. As a result, educational institutions have the right to decide how many and who to employ if they are eligible to recruit foreign teachers.

The List of Institutions Qualified to Employ Foreign Experts, published every year by the State Administration of Foreign Experts Affairs, has the names of kindergartens, language-training and middle schools, and public and private schools from across the country. The 1994 list had 1,130 (higher education) institutions, which almost doubled to 2,087 in 2001. The number had risen to 5,751 by March this year.

But the fast developing Chinese education (especially foreign-language training) market demands even more foreign teachers.

Asked why they wanted to teach in China, many foreign teachers have given me similar answers: "Only in China you can find a decent job," or "I was told China is in need of English teachers."

China has become part of the cross-border employment market. Job information today spreads globally through the Internet, as well as the traditional media. For example, a fresh American graduate, Leo, came to know about a vacancy through the Net, and a Canadian, Tom, learned about a teaching post while reading a magazine for retired teachers back in his country.

Tom had 30 years of teaching experience in Canada before coming to China. "Many teachers in Canada retire at a very early age," he said. "So China is a good choice as a working place before our actual retirement."

For fresh graduates like Leo's young colleague from the US, China is a place where work experience can be accumulated.

Since the employment market has now been globalized foreign teachers can come from any country, not only Western countries. Connie is lecturer in English literature in Xiamen University, Fujian province. The post used to be reserved for an American or British teacher, but Connie is Bulgarian who has lived in London for several years.

When institutions employ professionals from different countries, diversified academic styles and cultures get introduced to China, which is a positive sign. But diversity of nationalities is a different issue in the field of language training.

Ed is from South America and speaks English with a very strong accent. "I couldn't speak a single word of English when I came to China," he said. But despite that he has been teaching English in kindergartens ever since he came to China three years ago. And he is not the only one of his kind.

Two months ago, Ed held a birthday party, which was attended by more than 50 young men and women from different countries. Like Ed, 98 percent of the young people teaching English in kindergartens and small language-training schools are not native English speakers.

The advertisements issued by institutions for "all foreign teachers" blurs the distinction between native and non-native English speakers, which conforms to the stereotyped idea ordinary Chinese people have about foreigners. Many Chinese take it for granted that all foreigners (more specifically, Caucasians) speak very good English. This stereotype is an important driving force in the thriving foreign teachers' market.

Foreign professionals have brought to China different cultures, political and social values, which may add to the diversity of Chinese culture, or could challenge traditions.

The author is an associate professor in the College of Foreign Languages and Cultures, Xiamen University, Fujian.

(China Daily September 18, 2009)

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