A growing demand for foreign teachers in China attracted not only mentors but also tourists and even criminals in class due to weak supervision and red tape.
While Beijing parents are still reeling from the arrest of a British child rapist suspect, Nanjing residents were equally shocked to learn that an American child sex offender had been teaching English there for five years.
Wesley Hoyle Lowe, 63, was convicted of child pornography charges twice in Missouri in 2004 and 2008 before moving to Nanjing, Jiangsu province and was employed by an international English school from 2007 to 2009, according to data from the Illinois Sex Offender Information.
He had already left China two months ago due to visa issues, local newspaper Modern Express reported on April 28.
The news came right after Beijing police arrested Neil Robinson, a British national who was a former teacher at a Beijing international school. He is accused of distributing indecent images of children and raping a child.
Robinson, 47, joined Beijing World Youth Academy in 2008, but left the school in May last year for "personal reasons". He is believed to have been in the country since then.
Most teachers unqualified
The English school in Nanjing told the Modern Express that they recruited Lowe through an agency after checking his credentials, which have been approved by the authorities.
“During his two-year stint, we didn’t find anything wrong and there were not any complaints from children and parents,” said a staff member at the school.
But a student claimed that she received an e-mail from Lowe when studying at that school, which said “You make me feel hot,” the local newspaper reported.
Zhang Teng, a teacher with the education company Pearson, said 90 percent of the foreign teachers in China are not qualified.
“The schools scramble to make profit and igore their professional integrity. Foreign teachers need to be better supervised and managed,” he said.
Michael Thai, an American of Vietnamese ancestry, thought his bilingualism in Chinese and English would be a plus when he tried to find a job as an English teacher in Beijing.
But it would have been easier if he was white.
"I was asked to submit a résumé and teach a short demonstration course when I was interviewed for a job at a language training school in Beijing," he said. "But sometimes, for the white- skinned people, they don't even ask for a résumé," Thai said, citing the experiences of friends. "Meanwhile, white females can get paid a lot more than other Asian-looking foreigners."
A surge in the mainland's demand for foreign English teachers over the past decade has opened up opportunities for foreign teachers, but has also offered free rides for many unqualified tourists due to weak supervision. State broadcaster China Central Television said a foreign teacher working in China needed a bachelor's degree and a minimum of two years' teaching experience.
But Thai claimed that some people he knew got through job interviews using a made-up résumé, and that the training school he worked for never did any background checks on him.
Official figures say more than 180,000 "cultural and educational foreign professionals" worked on the mainland in 2011, teaching at kindergartens, primary and middle schools, colleges, universities and language training schools.
Mainland regulations say that only specially qualified organizations can hire foreign teachers, who are supposed to go through rigorous background checks before being registered as a "foreign expert" by local authorities and granted a work permit.
But Greg Donohue, an English instructor who spent two years teaching on the mainland, blogged on BeijingCream.com that the system was paperwork-heavy but low on actual verification.
"It took me five months to finally obtain a legit visa at my first school in Henan province," he wrote. "Most of that was spent mailing documents back and forth."
No background checks
To meet the growing demand for English-language tuition, schools in China often rush through candidate checks.
Xiong Bingqi , deputy director of the Beijing-based 21st Century Education Research Institute, said there were supervisory loopholes in almost each link of the management chain.
Some unqualified schools employed foreign teachers through education agents to avoid supervision, Xiong said. The agents also gave foreigners made up educational qualifications or teaching experience.
"In many cases, foreigners with only a travel visa become teachers," he said. "And they may leave at any time."
An education counselor with the international program at a high school attached to Tsinghua University, who declined to give her name, said that Chinese agencies often do not carry out background checks.
"Schools make phone calls or write to people for references to check prospective teachers' credentials," she said, adding that it was often difficult for schools to do criminal background checks.
"If applicants are from the United States, we can ask them to show a criminal background check by the US government. But it's hard to do that in China," she added.
A staff member at an agency in Wuhan said her company usually asked foreigners to take care of their own visas. It could help to register their foreign expert certificates in return for fees. Xiong said such a practice made it difficult to ensure the quality of teaching, let alone track those with criminal records.
"Actually the problem is there is no supervision of the certificate issuing procedure and the administration itself should shoulder some responsibility."
Xia Bing, an official with the State Administration of Foreign Experts Affairs, said: "Foreigners who want to work in China ought to provide proof that they have no criminal record."