LET A HUNDRED FLOWERS BLOOM—TOWARDS THE FURTHER EVOLUTION OF THE FOREIGN EXPERT SYSTEM IN CHINA
This week the approach of the Chinese New Year marks a major celebration of the role of Foreign Experts in making a major contribution to the building of modern China, highlighted in the speech of Premier Li Keqiang before an assembly of many noted expatriate scholars, experts and educators. The Premier, together with State Foreign Expert Bureau Deputy Director Liu Yangguo, also announced a major initiative inviting all Foreign Experts to share their experience working in China and to make suggestions, both towards the development of China nationally, and also towards the strengthening and reform of Foreign Expert system itself.
I had the pleasure of meeting with the Premier at the Great Hall of the People on a similar occasion sponsored by the State Foreign Expert Bureau in 2009 on the 60th Anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. This year marks the 20th Anniversary of my work in China, beginning in 1993, most of which was in the status of a “Foreign Expert,” or foreign Professor teaching at most of the most celebrated universities in the nation: Peking University, Tsinghua University, People’s Renmin University, Bei Wai, or the Beijing Foreign Studies University, the China University of Political Science and Law, the Guanghua School of Management MBA Program, and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) Law Institute and Graduate School, among others, in the three primary areas of International Law, Literature—Western, American, British and World Literature, and Business and MBA Studies.
In these fields I have been honored and happy to make a small contribution to China’s development. At the Law Institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences I participated in the drafting and revision process of the National People’s Congress in formulating the Chinese “Basic Legislation Law (Li Fa Ji Ben Fa)” together with other legal experts from the US, Germany and Canada under the auspices of the Ford Foundation and International Republican Institute. At Peking University I taught a course in Public International Law and in the International Relations Department helped to institute a program where the BeiDa students of International Relations for the first time visited the American, Canadian, Indonesian and European Union Embassies on bussed field trips and spoke face-to-face with the Ambassadors and frankly questioned their staffs on their bi-lateral and multi-lateral relationships with China, including meetings with American Ambassador James Sasser, EU Ambassador Endymion Wilkinson, and Canadian Ambassador Howard Balloch and others. I also taught a course training the Intellectual Property Judges of the Appeals Court of the State Intellectual Property Organization (SIPO) in copyright, trademark, patent and other forms of Intellectual Property worldwide, a key to China’s economic development. As a literary author, poet and novelist I also have been happy to introduce the great Classics and Masterpieces of Western Literature, American, British and World Literature to China’s best university students and future writers and scholars, and hope that their experience will help to shape China’s culture and literature into the future.
Professor Robert Sheppard giving a Public Lecture and Seminar at Renmin People’s University on the Concept of a United Nations Parliamentary Assembly, a globalized version of the EU Parliament Model as a new organ of the UN.
In the second decade of my work in China much of my public work focused on various aspects of the United Nations in China. I worked as a Senior Consultant to UNIDO, the United Nations Industrial Development Organization during the time of China’s accession to the WTO and transition to the age of E-Commerce, giving lectures, training seminars and investment recruitment conferences for state-owned company managers and foreign investment officials at MOFTEC in second-tier industrially-challenged cities such as Harbin, Changchun, Xining, and Changsha on how to adapt to the WTO and E-Commerce. Additionally, as a Senior Associate of the Committee for a Democratic United Nations I gave public lectures at Tsinghua University and at People’s Renmin University, introducing the concept of a United Nations Parliamentary Assembly, a globalized version of the EU Parliament as a new organ of the United Nations system for a more democratic system of global governance.
In 2008 I worked at the Beijing Sports University (Ti Yu Da Xue) making preparations for China’s first successful hosting of the Olympic Games. In recent years a greater part of my activity in addition to teaching has focused on being a professional writer, publishing in 2013 my two-part best-selling novel Spiritus Mundi, in which about a third of the action takes place in China. In short, my experience as a “Foreign Expert” has been swept along in the tide of amazing historical development which is the saga of the rise of modern China in our times.
Book Cover of Spiritus Mundi, Novel by Robert Sheppard 2013
OBSERVATIONS ON THE FOREIGN EXPERT SYSTEM, THE CONDITION OF FOREIGN EXPERTS WORKING IN CHINA, AND THE NEED FOR FURTHER REFORM
The Foreign Expert system of China is a great institution which has allowed hundreds of thousands of foreign scholars and educators to experience life and culture in China while making a major contribution to China’s development. But it, like the related laws and regulations on visas, permanent residence and the status of all foreign persons in China suffers from serious flaws and still uncompleted reforms that leave serious shortcomings for both the foreign experts and for the benefit of the nation as a whole. In many cases well-intentioned reforms have been begun but are still half-incomplete.
INADEQUATE TENURE, RETIREMENT, PERMANENT RESIDENCE AND SOCIAL SECURITY SYSTEM FOR LONG-TERM FOREIGN EXPERTS IN CHINA
Foreign Experts: Isabel and David Crook in 1947 near Yanan before National Liberation
Isabel in her 90’s: A Lifetime of Service to China
This week’s coverage of Premier Li Keqiang’s celebration of the contribution of Foreign Experts in the China Daily, including an eye-witness account by Ravi Shankar Narasimhan, gave a rightful place of honor to Isabel Crook, doyenne of the foreign expert community from Bei Wai, the Beijing Foreign Studies University, a remarkable woman of 98 years, the last 75 years of which she has spent in China, who is the epitome of that sub-class of foreign experts who have given not one or two years to China, but their entire lives. Her late husband David Crook was a good friend of mine when we were both at Bei Wai, and we often had extended conversations together both at the Foreign Expert building and at the Friendship Hotel, where we would often go swimming at the only pool in the area in those early days, often meeting there other life-term expats such as Israel Epstein or Sydney Shapiro and recounting his remarkable experiences of the Spanish Civil War, his service as a KGB Anti-Trotskyist Spy, WWII, his marriage and family, Liberation and his imprisonment for five years during the Cultural Revolution.
For David Crook’s generation of Communist Party members the conundrum of Social Security, immigrant status and tenure was ironically more straightforwardly solved as they became Chinese citizens and were then eligible for normal permanent tenure and employment in their Chinese University. They received permanent housing from their work unit, or “Danwei” and a conventional pension on retirement. For later “Foreign Experts” such as myself this path to full citizenship and integration was either not open or desired.
One serious shortcoming of the Foreign Expert system today is the lack of a legal or contractual framework for foreign experts to attain either permanent employment, academic “tenure” or the concomitant job security, advancement, retirement and health benefits of such a status. The Foreign Expert contract is invariably a one-year contract which may be renewed for successive years with mutual agreement but is never permanent and never includes any prospective retirement benefits or security of tenure. It’s original concept, no longer necessarily true, was that it was a temporary job with no career path, “job equity” or job security attached. Thus while a US Permanent Resident or Green Card holder may be granted tenure, promoted to departmental chairmanships, and enjoy pension, health, disability and pension rights on an equal basis with US Citizens, such remains an impossibility to even a Foreign Expert with Chinese Permanent Residence. To be fair, this usually met the needs and desires of the majority of both the foreign experts and the employers, who usually only contemplated a few years of service at most before returning inevitably to their home countries to take up their lives they left behind. Most foreign experts were recent college graduates out to experience Chinese life and culture or have an adventure in the world, or perhaps were retired teachers seeking a stimulating one-year experience to prevent retired life degenerating into the life of the “couch potato” at home. Quite a few were sponsored by religious organizations from their home countries with a covert religious agenda.
However, life has its “Law of Unexpected Consequences” and persons such as myself after coming to China to savor Chinese culture found ourselves as I did, marrying a Chinese girl, having children and being transformed from the “transient” expectations of the normal foreign expert into a permanent member of the community with a career inside China. The trouble, however, is that the “Foreign Expert System” simply had no legal or contractual framework for such an existence or its unforeseen consequences. For the long-term or life-long foreign expert such as myself there is no permanent job beyond one-year contracts, no framework for job security or long-term career path, no workable retirement system, no system for our children’s education, no permanent health-care beyond the current employer or upon retirement, no system for assistance in acquiring permanent housing and no system for assistance in repatriating back to one’s country of origin after an extended stay in China, such as portability of unemployment benefits, retirement benefits or social security credits or other transitional assistance. Perhaps it was always sometimes tacitly assumed that “all foreigners are rich” and can take care of themselves without institutional support or that their home countries would provide such assistance. In the era of the “World Economic Crisis” of depression-like proportions for some countries and vulnerabilities for the poorly-paid class of teachers and both the young and the “too old,” this is far from the case.
Let’s look at how the present “Foreign Expert System” fails long-term foreign experts such as myself who have given “the best part of their lives” to China, despite some very substantial reforms China has recently made to accommodate them. I am twenty-years resident in China, having married a Chinese woman and fathered two children in Beijing and been granted the still relatively rare status of a “Chinese Permanent Resident” or “Chinese Green Card” holder. Despite the reforms of two years ago which theoretically extended applicability of the Chinese Social Security system to all foreigners, not only foreign experts, including liability for Social Security tax I still have no prospect of qualifying for Chinese retirement benefits. Why? Because although the law gives us a right to participate in the retirement system after fourteen years of employment in China and at 62 I am past the normal Chinese retirement age of 60, the benefits only derive from and are calculated from having had a Social Security account into which the employer has paid Social Security tax over the years of employment. Here the “Catch 22” is that until two years ago employers of foreign experts, mostly universities, while having deducted income taxes over the last twenty years did not make any contributions year-by-year for the foreign expert to any Social Security account. Thus by law I am fully eligible for Chinese Social Security, but because for those twenty years the universities have made no contribution to a Social Security account in the employee’s name, the reality is that I am entitled effectively to zero benefits. Under the US system I again qualify for US Social Security benefits, but since working in China for twenty years no credit has been made to my Social Security account in the US, so that the level of benefit based on contributions before coming to China is averaged down by the many years of no contribution while in China, with the result that benefits are skewed artificially down to the minimum level, inadequate to sustain life in retirement either in the US or in China. Similarly, there is no retirement health benefit available for the retired expat foreign expert living in China. Since there are only some 6000 expats who have qualified for Chinese Permanent Residence, all of this conundrum is further exacerbated by the fact that for all others one’s visa and residence status will automatically expire when your last job ends. Therefore, you will have to leave the country before you can qualify for unemployment or retirement benefits anyway, though most likely you will discover they don’t really exist in reality anyway despite the law granting them. Unlike the Crook generation, the contemporary retiring foreign expert will also not retain housing from the “danwei” or university or other employer, nor any employment-based private pension. Indeed, the contemporary retiring Foreign Expert will soon discover that “You’re on your own, buddy.”
David Crook in our swimming expeditions from Bei Wai to the Friendship Hotel used to laugh that one of his duties as a KGB spy in Spain during the Spanish Civil War was to maintain surveillance of George Orwell, author of 1984 and Animal Farm, a suspected “Trotskyist” and an author I much admired. One of the most poignant and heart-wrenching episodes of the Animal Farm allegory, you may recall, comes when the “inner party of pigs” discover that the work horses who have shouldered the main burden of the farm’s work have been thoroughly exhausted and worn out by old age and can no longer work. They are callously sold off and shipped to the meat factory to be butchered into dog food when they can no longer work. China has made immense progress in avoiding the condition or the Orwellian dystopian prophecy and should hasten and complete its reforms of the Foreign Expert System to prevent the foreign experts who have given the better part of their lives to China from suffering such an Orwellian end.
Thus, at a minimum to begin serious reform of the Foreign Expert System in respect of job security and Social Security, the Chinese government should study the implementation of the following possible reforms: 1) Extend retroactive credit within the Social Security system for qualifying for benefits to Foreign Experts reaching retirement age based on Income Tax paid by the foreign expert before the law changed requiring and enabling payment of Social Security Tax; 2) Negotiate immediately bi-lateral Social Security Portability treaties or with the nations from which most Foreign Experts come from—the US, Canada, Australia, UK and the EU, among others—providing for mutual recognition of contributions in bother systems and enjoyment of benefits across borders of both systems; 3) Negotiate bi-lateral Unemployment Insurance Portability treaties respecting the eligibility of persons returning from employment in one country for Unemployment Insurance benefits in the other country based on mutual recognition and credit of taxes paid in the other to support the repatriation process; 4) Provide for old-age medical and disability insurance and retirement housing assistance for Foreign Expert retirees at least on an equal basis of other Chinese nationals; 5) Implement regulations authorizing and promoting permanent employment and academic tenure on an equal basis with Chinese nationals for long-term Foreign Experts with Chinese Permanent Residence, rather than insecure one-year contracts, with legal protection against discrimination in hiring, retention, renewal of contracts , ordinary advancements and dismissals.
EXTENDING PREMIER LI AND PRESIDENT XI’s CALL FOR INTENSIFICATION OF MARKET-BASED REFORMS TO THE FOREIGN EXPERT SYSTEM
“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a teacher is in want of adequate compensation,” is a global truism in apt paraphrase a well-known authoress. This is also true of the Foreign Expert in China, whether of the garden variety such as English and basic academic instructors or even of the special categories of foreign experts created to attract specialized talent. While on “Teachers’ Day” cards and flowers may be offered as a token of the Confucian sentiment of honor towards scholars, in China as well as most countries of the world governments, universities, schools and employers are most reluctant to “put their money where their mouth is.” This remains true even where vast fortunes are being made in the “industry” of education where parents are being drained of excessive amounts out of a frenzied desire to secure their children’s futures by hook or by crook.
The pay for ordinary Foreign Experts is poor. On the whole it is adequate to the condition of the typical foreign expert—a young college graduate looking for a cultural overseas adventure, first international job or travel opportunity or an older Western retiree seeking a twilight challenge or covert religious mission with church sponsorships and subsidies. For a single person without family burdens the pay is adequate for a modestly comfortable life in China, though the amount it is possible to save and take home on return after a year is so small as to hardly pay for a week in a hotel in the US. Exchange scholars and professors seconded or on leave from their home universities who enjoy their home salaries on top of the low-level Chinese salary have no problems. For these classes it is quite possible to have a comfortable and enjoyable year or two, especially with the benefit of the free housing and air-ticket home usually provided in the ‘Foreign Expert Package.” For long-term foreign experts unsubsidized from their home country, especially those with children and families the compensation is grossly inadequate for ordinary needs, let alone the exorbitant cost of children’s overseas education, forcing universal moonlighting and forced repatriation to attempt to make ends meet.
This is in no way accidental. The market for Foreign Expert’s professional services is a completely rigged and fixed system based on government monopoly. All universities and schools are required by law to base their teachers’ compensation levels on “State Foreign Expert Bureau Guidelines” which generally forbid universities and schools from paying more than a base level for each category of qualification, generally in the area of 4000-7000 RMB per month. Nor will the band of compensation increase with any achievement or accomplishment. The inevitable result of this monopoly government price fixing is that the best people after their year of new experience are quick to look for other employment in the sectors of the economy not price-fixed. The typical foreign expert job is seen only as a temporary stepping-stone to something better with a future. One of the greatest absurdities of this system I have witnessed firsthand is the outrageous disparity of the Foreign Expert salaries for professors at Peking University and Tsinghua University—supposedly the Harvard and MIT of China—-in which I have seen English-speaking Kindergarten teachers being paid literally three times the monthly salary of PKU or Tsinghua professors with PhD’s teaching advanced university graduate courses! Why? Because the for-profit Kindergartens are not within the leaden price-fixing system of the State Foreign Expert Bureau and respond to market demand and the near manic compulsion of Chinese parents to give their children even the slightest head start or advantage in the perceived crawl to the top of the heap.
To be fair, this system that keeps Foreign Experts poor had important justifications in its origins. At the beginning of the PRC China was in fact extremely poor and could only afford to pay little to foreigners. After “Kai Fang” or the “Opening Up” policy after 1979 it remained important to both conserve scarce funds and foreign exchange and to give poorer areas some chance to compete with the major centers in attracting foreign talent by not becoming perpetual losers in a bidding war. Foreigners were “assumed to be rich” and their pay in any case was more than their comparable Chinese colleagues, who suffered at least triple the underpay and exploitation as their relatively privileged foreign counterparts. Most foreign experts, moreover, were not motivated by money but rather by cultural curiosity, a spirit of adventure, altruism or other motives and were planning only a short sojourn before moving on to bigger and better things elsewhere.
Now, however, as China is moving fast towards “Xiaokang” or moderate prosperity many of those valid early justifications for the system have begun to obsolesce. As Premier Li and President Xi emphasize, the deepening of the market-based reforms applied to other sectors may now be usefully extended in the area of education. The price-fixing system for keeping Foreign Expert salaries low and uniform should be abolished or modified to allow greater compensation to greater talents, achievements and qualifications. Better compensation to highly skilled Foreign Experts is not only now affordable, but is essential for retention, development and deployment of their talents to meet China’s aspiration to develop a quality of education equal to and competitive with developed countries in the second-half of its national development. Foreign Experts, teachers and professors should be allowed to freely unionize and engage in collective bargaining to improve their compensation and working conditions. And Chinese teachers and scholars should be similarly empowered to bargain collectively with their employers for improvement of their much more severe conditions of undercompensation and exploitation! Though in the short-term this will be costly and inconvenient for the schools and government, in the long-run it will be the only way to lift the quality of the Chinese educational system and transform it into a system capable of fostering the critical thinking, innovative and creative capacity capable of raising China to fulfill its still unmet aspiration of a fully developed and globally competitive nation and economy, based on quality and not just bulk quantity. With due sensitivity to questions of cultural and political control, the scope for private and Chinese-Foreign joint-venture education should be markedly opened in the educational sector as it has been in the industrial sector, including increased attraction and participation of foreign talent and foreign experts at increasing levels of management.
THE TRAGIC “CATCH-22” FOR FOREIGN EXPERTS’ CHILDREN BORN IN CHINA
One of the serious shortcomings of the present Foreign Expert system in China is its lack of provision for the children of foreign experts, both those born abroad and accompanying their parents and those born in China, often of marriages with Chinese national spouses. These children often suffer severe challenges and vulnerabilities in securing adequate educational opportunities in China, both for economic reasons and because they are often caught between two cultures, two educational systems, two immigration and regulatory systems and nationality systems, leading to entrapment in perilous “Catch 22” dilemmas.
All expatriates in China, not only Foreign Experts have serious problems securing adequate educations for their children. In simple money terms, the cost of expat children’s education is astronomical. It is literally true that it often costs more to send foreign children to international kindergarten, elementary and high schools in China than to send them to a university in the US or other Western nations. Initial enrollment, “capital contribution” or other fees may reach $10-20,000 even before annual tuition per child of similar amounts. Disraeli famously observed that Britain was in danger of becoming “Two Nations: Rich and Poor,” and the expatriate community in China and other countries is even more polarized into two classes: 1) the corporate and embassy employees whose employment contract “package” provides a full employer-paid subsidy for payment of the exorbitant costs of overseas education for their children, and 2) the vulnerable, insecure underpaid independents and Foreign Experts whose employers provide no subsidy for their children’s education and have no free public school system to help them as they would have in their home countries. Needless to say, a Foreign Expert on a standard contract salary of perhaps 5000 RMB per month cannot pay the 100,000’s of RMB to send each of his children to such international school as ISB, WAB and others utilized by employer-subsidized corporate and diplomatic staff through their “fat package” employment contract provisions. A number of Chinese public schools have lower-cost “International Departments” such as the Fang Cao Di elementary school and the No. 80 Middle and High School in Beijing which accept children of foreign experts, but even these have initial enrollment fees plus annual tuition fees both in excess of 50,000 RMB. How can a Foreign Expert on 5000 RMB per month pay such an amount per child? The standard Foreign Expert Contract has no provision for the employer paying accompanying children’s educational cost. The result is extreme hardship for any children of Foreign Experts relying on earned income to educate their children.
Other barriers are those of the children’s language ability and the need for them to re-enter their own country’s educational system on repatriation from China. A very common initial total lack of Chinese language by the Foreign Expert’s children may preclude them from functioning in a Chinese-language public school (though it may be great for acquiring the language eventually) and a lack of money may deny them access to a bi-lingual or English-language International School. Even if these factors are overcome, the school may ill prepare them for competing to enter university in their home countries, including necessary subjects for college entrance exams.
In my own children’s case, Claire and Joseph were born in Beijing to parents of mixed US and Chinese citizenship, each with Permanent Residence in the other’s country. They attended Fang Cao Di, a Chinese public elementary school with an “International Department” for foreign children and had a successful experience growing up bi-lingual. Middle school was more problematical. Claire, the eldest had a Beijing Hukou and was assigned by lottery to No.13 Middle School but had great difficulty adapting to the regimented environment of a 100% Chinese school. We moved her to Xin Dong Fang’s Foreign Language School after they offered to give her free tuition in exchange for me giving some classes at the school. For Joseph No. 80 Middle School’s International Department proved workable at a cost of some 50,000 Rmb per year per child. In all cases the children’s educational costs would be unpayable from a Foreign Expert’s standard salary, and were only managed by supplementary outside income sources.
High School, however, found Claire trapped in a “Catch 22” situation that may ensnare foreign children born in China. She was accepted by No. 80 High School’s International Department but a new regulation of the State Education Commission required each student enrolling in an International School at the high school or higher level to have an updated visa in their foreign passport. But when we went to the Public Security Bureau with her US Passport to update a current visa they refused to issue one on the ground that she was born in Beijing to a Chinese mother and thus could be claimed as a Chinese citizen with a Beijing Hukou. Chinese law and treaties do not provide for dual citizenship. Thus they refused to issue a current visa until she went through a procedure to formally renounce her entitlement to Chinese citizenship, an unfortunate decision to force on a child and her parents, and one which takes more than a year to complete. So she could not enter any International High School because she lacked a current Chinese visa in her US Passport. She however could not enter any Chinese high school because she had not taken the “Zhong Kao” or Chinese Middle-School Entrance Exam. The result of the new regulation was that she was locked out of both Chinese and International High Schools, a tragic “Catch 22” with a deadly bite for those vulnerable and innocent children who are born between two nationalities.
In conclusion, with respect to the children of Foreign Experts, China should consider the following possible reforms to the Foreign Expert System: 1) With regard to the “Catch 22” exclusion of foreign children born in China from International Schools, regulations should be adopted immediately requiring all International Schools to accept such children legally resident in the country without regard to visa status, and the PSB should be forbidden to require children born in China to foreign parents to renounce any claim to Chinese citizenship prior to issuing a current Chinese visa prior to the child’s 18th birthday; 2) Provision of education for Foreign Expert’s accompanying children should be a mandatory term of the standard Foreign Expert Contract; 3) To accomplish this state regulations should require all International Schools to accept and educate the children of foreign experts at fees no greater than 10% of their contracted Foreign Expert yearly salary; 4) Where no International Schools exist in the area, local Chinese schools or those attached to universities should be required to accept and make special provision for the education of the children of Foreign Experts at a cost not to exceed average fees charged to local Chinese children in the same area; 5) Foreign Expert contracts should require employers to provide full medical coverage for all children of foreign expert employees; 6) Discrimination in hiring, firing or non-renewal of Foreign Expert Contracts because of the presence of accompanying children should be illegal and subject to award of lost compensation and reinstatement by the Foreign Expert Bureau; 7) Employers of Foreign Experts should be required by regulation and the terms of the standard Foreign Expert employment contract to provide housing appropriate to the needs of families with children or the cash equivalent; 8) Employers of Foreign Experts should by regulation be required to file an annual Foreign Expert Dependent Children Educational Plan detailing their written agreement with local schools to provide for such children’s education in the coming year as a condition of renewing their authorization to employ Foreign Experts; 9) International treaties should be negotiated between the principal countries requiring each country to provide a voucher or payment to each child of its nationality to cover the costs of public education of each child in the foreign country—guaranteeing for instance that each US national child in China receives public funds from the US at least equivalent to the average expenditure of public funds in public schools per child in the US to insure their education in China, and each Chinese child in the US receives a voucher or payment equivalent to the average expenditure of public funds per child in China. This should insure that no child should be deprived of equal access to basic education regardless of their parents’ temporary country or place of residence, and redress the inequity that expatriate parents from the US must pay their US income taxes as well as Chinese income taxes but are deprived of the use of that tax money they have paid for the education of their children merely because of residence abroad.
MEDICAL CARE FOR FOREIGN EXPERTS IN CHINA: A PROMISE INCOMPLETELY FULFILLED
With regard to medical care for expatriate Foreign Experts in China my experience is that despite State Foreign Expert Bureau regulations and standard Foreign Expert Employment Contract provisions which mandate that all employers provide such care to the standard of the care enjoyed by comparable Chinese national employees, and despite recent laws extending comparable guarantees to all foreign workers in China, the actual care received, especially in medical emergencies such as required operations, births, and emergency hospitalization are far from adequate.
We all know how hospitals and health care providers are grossly overburdened and inadequately staffed to handle the incredible numbers of both Chinese national patients and the few foreign patients they are responsible for. A visit to a Chinese hospital or doctor will involve a wait in incredible lines and a very limited time with the doctor for communicating, diagnosing and treating the problem. This is a regrettable condition we hope will improve with time for both Chinese and foreign patients, and this is not the time or place to analyze the entire medical care and medical insurance program of the nation as a whole, which is slowly improving. I will make only a few comments and suggestions more specific to the experience of the average Foreign Expert with a serious medical condition.
For ordinary problems in a major city like Beijing foreign experts can generally receive adequate care if they are patient enough to go through the lines and waits and manage the communication and language problem by bring along a Chinese colleague or friend to translate. Many bigger hospitals like Xie He Hospital in the Embassy district have an international department which makes communication easier and lines shorter, though sometimes at a slightly increased but generally moderate cost. If a foreign expert wishes to pay a considerably higher fee out of his own pocket, which may not be reimbursed by the employer or its standard care plan he is free to use Western-oriented hospitals such as the Sino-Japanese Hospital or the Beijing Family United.
When a major medical emergency requiring hospitalization of a Foreign Expert occurs, however, the response of the employer is often far from adequate. The first major problem is that the Chinese hospital will require 100% prepayment before treatment or hospitalization. This means that for something big you have to first pay cash out of your own pocket, get receipts and then take them to the employer and beg for reimbursement, which may or not occur. For a major operation if you do not have 10-50,000 RMB in your pocket you would find great difficulty getting your employer to advance payment or a voucher for the funds. This system is detrimental because it forces people to often delay treatment until the condition worsens and costs more and more money.
Moreover, when major operations or hospitalization occurs for a foreign expert the university or employer is often obstructive and evasive in providing for reimbursement. The usual reason for this is that the employer has no system of funding, budgeting or insurance for its legal liability to the Foreign Expert under the employment contract and Foreign Expert Bureau Regulations. Costs of a hospitalization or major operation will come out of surplus funds already coveted by high administrators for their own perks and pet projects at best, and corrupt diversions of funds at worse. The employer will therefore often deny liability, insist you should have gotten your own insurance, delay, and often descend into dishonest practices in your greatest time of need. They may even take away your pay for the time you are disabled for the medical treatment and recovery. The foreign expert may be strongly urged to return his own country for treatment or deceptive reasons given for discontinuing the contract. In my own experience over twenty years most of the time I was very healthy and minor problems were managed reasonably. When I required an emergency hernia operation while employed as a professor at Peking University, however, I found that the supposedly top university was far from forthcoming and shamefully failed to meet its legal obligation of reimbursing health care to its Foreign Experts. To prevent such shortcomings every employer of Foreign Experts should be required to file an Annual Plan for meeting the unforeseen medical needs of foreign staff including either a third-party insurance or a pre-budgeted purpose-specific reserve fund account set aside for such emergencies. The State Foreign Expert Bureau should have a specific office available for Foreign Experts to appeal to with power to review and order delinquent payment by the employer, failure of which would cause cancellation of the school or employer’s authorization to employ Foreign Experts. Another shameful consequence of a Foreign Expert having a medical emergency is the very likely prospect that the contract will be cancelled or almost certainly the contract will not be renewed, simply because the employee is seen as a potential drain on funds. This is shameful behavior by employers of Foreign Experts. Having enjoyed the benefit and contribution of the worker for years the merest medical expense often results in showing the unfortunate worker the door at the time of greatest family need. The Foreign Expert Bureau should issue explicit regulations making it illegal to terminate or fail to renew a Foreign Expert’s employment because of past medical conditions or legitimate medical costs when the worker is capable of resuming their work. Appropriate temporary disability coverage by the employer should be required. Treatment of Foreign Experts as “disposable” upon encountering insurable medical costs and conditions is a gross breach of trust and waste of the talent contributing to China’s future.
Another area of abuse is the frequent failure of the employer to pay the return-air-ticket fee which is part of every Foreign Expert contract. In many instances if the Foreign Expert does not permanently return to his home country but instead changes to a new employer at the end of the year the Foreign Affairs Office of the school or employer often improperly refuses to pay and simply pockets the air-ticket money, often for official perks or worse. The Foreign Expert Bureau should have a Hotline to report and correct such abuses.
“Let a hundred flowers bloom, let a hundred schools contend!”—President Xi and Premier Li have asked for a gathering of experiences and of recommendations from Foreign Expert community in China for the better development of China, the Foreign Expert System and for a better global world of our future. I shall always treasure the experience and opportunities which I have had to contribute to the rise of China during the past twenty years of my service here. I hope that service and the suggestions made here based on that experience may make some small further contribution to improving our common future together.