133 - The Five Year Rule

There was an edict from the Central Committee, which in rough translation, says:

Regarding the 5-year limit on foreign experts remaining in China, in principle no foreign employee shall have service extended beyond five years. Senior management or professionals with at least an assistant professor’s position or equivalent can have service extended.

I became aware of this in June 2013 in Common Room discussion in Beijing and took the news with me to Qingdao that month. The rule was to be acted upon at the start of 2014 and, sure enough, we (staff in my Centre) heard of people who were being denied extension of their visas.


There is a good deal of confusion about the visa acquisition process. Various documents are contingent requirements and these vary with whether the visa application is a first one, a conversion between types or an extension. What is relevant here is that a foreigner needs a foreign expert certificate [FEC] to have a work permit and then the work permit is required for the visa renewal. The FEC is produced as a passport-shaped booklet, as if it going to have many renewals - which, I suppose, it may in some cases have. The officials say the foreigner should hold it but many employers say they should. This happens often with official paper, here; in some ways the employer is right because in general the employee is hopelessly at sea identifying documents, being largely unaware what is or is not important. There are occasions where the visitor is required to be holding the paper and at these points their employer needs to be quick to step in front of the foreigner, with the right paper.

In the case about which I am writing, it is the FEC that is being made hard to obtain. The consequence is that a visa will not be issued and it is the visa that is in your passport, so from the worker’s point of view, the result is the problem.


Foreigners, and in context I mean westerners from English-speaking countries, expect HR departments to be filled with qualified staff; they bring their national expectations with them. Chinese happily copy titles, but frequently do nothing more, so if there is any national qualification for HR personnel, I have yet to meet anyone aware of such a thing. This means that it is quite often that the employee expecting service from an HR department actually knows more about the HR role in general and sometimes at also the detail level. To be absolutely correct the foreigner knows better than the local what it is that HR does in the foreign country; the local is quite possibly well aware of the (low) local expectations. The connected problems arising from such a situation are strongly coloured by contrasting expectations of work rate, of the concept of service and by the concept of what the role is supposed to achieve.


I am not excusing any behaviour here, nor am I pointing fingers of blame; I am explaining that there are differences in concepts. I am trying to help you understand the degree to which there is a lack of common ground. Let me give some examples from the teaching business. From the external viewpoint, the teacher is the worker, directly affecting the product; HR is an indirect, service department.

The typical foreign teacher is expecting HR to help - that is, to provide a service that keeps the front-line worker doing the thing that actually earns money for the business (teaching customers). The teacher expects HR to provide this help in ways that relieve any stresses so that teaching is effective (efficient, productive, etc) because this is the best way in which services will reduce losses.

The typical Chinese department does not think like this at all. First of all we have the face problem, about which I have written before; anyone discovering a problem cannot tell their boss without causing the boss to lose face, and this is a social crime. The boss is supposed to already know, for that is why he or she is the boss. Second, and partly because of this first issue, service is a foreign concept. If the East ever discovers value in providing service (ways in which giving service doesn’t conflict with face issues) then the West is in trouble, because the tiger will be all over them, licking them at everything except invention. Third, no department works for the people, they work for the company. They might personalise it as working for the boss. Most of all they work at fulfilling their own image of what the job is and that is entirely affected by self-image. A westerner might call this self-importance and I see that is not entirely wrong - people use what little control or power they have to make their own position stronger (or more comfortable, or less uncomfortable). To use a message from other essays on this sort of cultural difference, they take any and every short-term advantage. Not doing that, playing the ‘long game’, is considered very sophisticated.


Against these two very different backgrounds you then need to recognise what happens when they mix. The westerner has no face issues: a recognised problem will be dealt with in some way, even if that is only moaning to the next available ear. Communicating across such a cultural divide is only comfortable in one direction and usually, I’m afraid, both sides are going to end up unhappy. The westerner will be looking ahead and seeing a problem; the easterner is not looking in that direction and will refuse to ‘see’ the problem. The westerner then gets loud, persistent and demanding. The easterner is placatory, saying whatever will pacify the angry red-face (called a black-face). Eventually the westerner realises those last messages are meaningless (the words were said but nothing happened). Eventually the dire emergency the westerner predicted occurs and the easterners fix the problem with an immediate solution that does nothing to fix the under-lying or the long-term problems, only the one right on front of them. They fix it in a way that gets the fastest solution - which means getting it off their desks as fast as possible. This satisfies the easterner (I’m good at my job, look how quickly I dealt with that) and drives the westerner towards a heart-attack, with virtually the opposite opinion.


So the five year rule is a good example of a problem brewing all year. Back in January the foreign staff here discussed the rule with each other and with the locals. Many placatory assurances were given. Experienced foreigners pointed to the rule and started to look for alternative work, just in case. By the time the locals have shown they don’t have a clue, the foreigners have pooled knowledge across the city and have far better information. Well, they think they do, because they’re sure they’re telling each other what they’ve actually learned. They won’t know what the locals know, because the locals will not tell them any bad news. The westerners assume the locals are idiots, being unable to discover information they found themselves quite easily. Relationships deteriorate. By early April (think Easter, though we wouldn’t recognise that here) your friendly HR is wondering who will renew contracts and is a bit surprised to find the foreign devils (even) more surly than usual. Various foreigners write to high-ups in their company, not having had any satisfactory reaction locally; questions are asked and of course if the high-ups are eastern they pass the problem straight back to the locals; if they’re westerners they ask more questions but are still, habitually, told what it is thought they want to hear, with even less result, for the message (that a question was asked) never gets back to the local office. By May, many foreigners have been through the rage barrier, have found themselves work to go to and of course will not tell HR, because (i) HR are now proven to be idiots (ii) incompetent idiots (iii) if HR was informed that you (a foreigner) has decided to leave, that would be treated as a declaration of resignation and so it is likely that the contract will be cut short, leaving, say, July as unpaid. Short-term advantage is (would be, has been) taken as explained already. So the foreigners have taken action and won’t discuss anything until absolutely forced to. The locals can’t get any answers to what is on their desks as this week’s task, so they too are frustrated. Yet everyone thinks their own behaviour is entirely reasonable. Worse, I think each side thinks the other side is completely stupid.


In effect, as I wrote in a memo to Head Office recently, there are two HR depts. One serves the company interests and is called HR. The other one serves the interests of the staff; it provides the missing information, explanations and actions. The dichotomy is not helpful, largely because the westerners continue to expect the official HR to have answers, to provide some service and to do some things they presumably have time for that busy teachers do not have time for. Various lower level staff end up doing a lot to help (presumably with low faces) and this is genuine service but typically that very helpful person is also in conflict with their direct superior who sees the world entirely differently.



In the case of my staff, I expect just one of the nine foreigners to stay. There can be no handover from outgoing staff to new staff as HR as created a situation where all will leave mid-June so as to complete the visa life with annual holiday. [That confuses visa end date with contract date, but takes the earliest exit date, which minimises pay, a short-term solution]. Incoming foreign staff will be selected from those who have still not found work at the end of May. That means that in many western countries the staff that one would like to have out here are already unavailable, having handed in their notice in late May. HR didn’t ever want to hear that. So the staff being interviewed are already self-selected for weakness of one sort or another. We have usually selected from staff already located in China; I agree with this, as these people have already shown they like being here and it is quite likely that they want a different boss or a different city or better weather. Now, of course, the long-timers are all excluded, thanks to the five year rule.


Worse, the rule is applied differently across the country. It would appear that China is targeting teachers and  that Qingdao is taking the lead in being hard-nosed about this. We established in late March that the usual wriggles would not apply: no benefit if you’re a senior teacher, no benefit in being married to a chinese, no escaping by having renewed your passport, by working in other provinces, by not being in teaching the whole time. Basically, teachers out.


Okay. Bye-bye.


But in that case, where does that leave your contract? This is termination by the company, due to external influences perhaps, but if so only after the officials have denied application for renewal of the FEC. What I am seeing is action being taken that makes the employee terminate. There is no equitable or equable conversation, nor one between equals, that discusses the issue as it affects each employee so that both parties might agree the contract needs to end. To me this is the essence of what HR’s role is, protecting the rights of both company and worker, earning its cost by preventing costly legal battles. The local action is consistent with their culture in every sense explained above. That doesn’t match with the western viewpoint and I predict some nasty cases later in the year.


Message received; Foreign devils, out.

Again, bye-bye, only not so politely.




DJS 20140524

Re-reading this in November 2014, it still fits my understanding of what occurred. One member of staff stayed on, at least one more thought he had a job but it evaporated due to the five year rule not being taken seriously by the employer, despite repeated discussion. Most left the country.

 However, © David Scoins 2017