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Chinese President Xi Jinping attends the closing session of the National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China on May 28, 2020.

CARLOS GARCIA RAWLINS/Reuters

China is sweeping foreigners into its demands for political conformity with a draft policy for international teachers that mandates ideological training sessions, prescribes a new tracking system to monitor conduct and threatens to punish those accused of damaging the country’s dignity.

The draft policy, released Tuesday for a month of comment, formalizes expectations for foreign teachers who work in China, many of whom have already been instructed to avoid classroom discussion of subjects the Chinese Communist Party considers sensitive – forbidden topics that include the Tiananmen Square massacre, the status of Taiwan and the mass incarceration of Uyghurs.

In doing so, education authorities have made clear new political oversight requirements for international schools in China, where dozens of institutions are backed by Canadian provinces.

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Education is an important component of Canadian trade with China and a key sector for foreign passport holders in the country; between 30 and 40 per cent of the international work force in China is employed in education, according to China Services International, a state-backed foreign recruitment firm.

The new policy was drafted amid demands for greater ideological control in China under President Xi Jinping, said Suisheng Zhao, a scholar of education in China and the director of the Center for China-US Cooperation at the University of Denver. China’s leadership wants to ensure that the education system “follows the party line and does not allow Western liberal ideas to penetrate,” he said.

A new policy for foreign teachers has been under development for more than a year and could be enacted before school resumes in September, according to Wang Yushi, the Minister of International Education for China Services International.

For years, international education in China has been rife with problems, including unqualified teachers and substandard schools that defraud students and staff alike. Chinese officials have said that, in 2017, two-thirds of foreign education workers lacked proper qualifications. International education, critics say, has become a Wild West of profiteering middlemen and grey-market companies skirting official requirements.

The draft measures are meant to address some of those problems, with specific requirements for contracts, professional qualifications and conduct free of criminal behaviour, including sexual assault, illegal drug use and falsification of credentials.

But if enacted, they will also allow the Chinese state to assert greater control over international teachers and schools, which have for decades provided a Western education inside China, largely to the growing numbers of children who hold foreign passports.

The draft policy specifies that foreign teachers should be dismissed for a range of political offences, including “words and actions that damage China’s national sovereignty, security, honour and the public interests of society;” for engaging in religious education; for obstructing the country’s education policy; and for “other actions that seriously violate China’s public order and morals.”

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It mandates a minimum of 20 hours of instruction for new teachers in subjects such as the Chinese constitution, laws and national conditions – the latter a term broadly used in the country’s patriotic education program, which stresses that China cannot adopt Western systems of governance because of its unique population and development. It calls for foreign teachers to be registered with central education authorities. And it describes the creation of a credit record system in which those who perform well – and display admirable ethics – will be rewarded by authorities who issue permits and visas.

Educators in China say such requirements are sensible. “Anyone who wants to start a new career, or even simply to live in a new place, needs to grasp knowledge of its law to be a civilized citizen,” said Chu Hongqi, an education policy specialist and the headmaster of Beijing Open University. Sovereignty, security and related topics are “elements that build up our society. Asking people to learn these is an effort to help them better interact with people and with China.”

At the same time, the demands for constitutional instruction call to mind the political indoctrination programs that have placed large numbers of Uyghur Muslims in forcible re-education facilities.

Across China, meanwhile, schools have long been an important ideological battleground for authorities seeking to enhance national unity and build loyalty to the Communist Party.

In international institutions, too, authorities and administrators have applied pressure to halt any discussion of party governance or events its leaders want ignored or forgotten.

Nick Baker, an Australian teacher who recently left China after working for six years in international schools, was told not to discuss the protests in Hong Kong “because we were being watched by the authorities,” he said. His school was ordered to present curriculum material to local officials for review. In Chinese universities, professors have been told to request special permission to use foreign textbooks.

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“If teachers want to stay in China, they will just have to watch what they say,” Mr. Baker said. “Will the schools disappear altogether? Probably not. But international schools will just look much more ‘Chinese’ in years to come.”

Such changes have implications beyond students in China.

Education has grown into a significant international business with China, which sends large numbers of students abroad and has allowed foreign universities and education authorities to profit from investment inside its borders. Canadian provinces have spent years building networks of schools in China – almost 100 in total – that use Canadian curriculum materials, a profitable arrangement that also prepares large cohorts of Chinese students to attend universities in those provinces.

Canadian authorities have defended these arrangements, saying they maintain strict requirements for schools in China.

“Foreign schools wishing to use Nova Scotia’s curriculum must meet the same high standards as schools in the province,” the provincial government said in 2003, when it announced that seven Chinese high schools would follow its course of study, including “learning about Joseph Howe and Bay of Fundy tides.” Fifteen Chinese schools now use a Nova Scotia curriculum, and Premier Stephen McNeil has said he hopes to increase that number to 20 this year.

But the political environment in China is changing, with a national leadership that has explicitly rejected Western values and has overseen a wide-reaching effort to expunge foreign thinking.

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“The end game here is to make it unviable for foreign education institutions to operate in China,” said Jiang Xueqin, a Beijing-based researcher who studies Chinese schools. “This can be done either by increasing the costs of business so that it is no longer profitable to do business in China or by localizing and co-opting foreign education institutions to such a degree that they are indistinguishable from Chinese schools.”

International schools have historically enjoyed considerable latitude to promote critical thinking, in part as a way of helping their students succeed at foreign universities and in innovative workplaces.

The draft policy for foreign teachers puts the future of such instruction into question, said Sam Blyth, the founding executive of Blyth Academy, which has opened an online school in China and is preparing to open one in Suzhou this fall.

“They’ve been happy to have Chinese students go to Western universities that develop these talents, confident that many of the brightest and best will return to China,” he said. “Sadly, however, internal security issues in China will always trump education and other planning priorities. And as China makes more enemies abroad, I would see it becoming more restrictive internally, including how and what their students are taught.”

Chinese recruiters, however, dismiss such concerns. “Our understanding is that the new policy won’t bring a huge difference, said Mr. Wang of China Services International. He instead expressed concern that the policy will do little to eliminate illegal and unqualified teachers.

As for the new political requirements, those, he said, “will help schools and education institutes develop a more unified management strategy for foreign teachers.”

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With reporting from Alexandra Li

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