UPDATE: On 24th July, 2021, the General Office of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China and the General Office of the State Council issued released an announcement titled “Opinions on Further Reducing the Work Burden of Students in Compulsory Education and the Burden of Off-campus Training”. Among other things, it dramatically changes the landscape of the ESL industry in mainland China.
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Teaching English to Chinese Kids Online
The announcement by the Chinese government has resulted in many high profile China based ESL companies either closing abruptly (GoGoKid) or announcing that they will be winding down while still honoring their existing contracts with Chinese parents.
The motivation for this disruption to the industry has been hotly debated. Ostensibly, the purpose is to reduce the burden of childhood education on Chinese families. There is no doubt that financially the cost of extra-curricular tutoring has been increasing and the time burdens imposed on children themselves is also controversial. But whether these new rules lead to better outcomes, remains to be seen. My personal view is that those with the means to hire private tutors for their kids will continue to do so. Which leads me to a few essential points which you need to understand.
- The change of rules ONLY affects school kids. There is nothing in them which relates to adult language training.
- The rules only apply to SELLING services. Not BUYING services. It is NOT illegal for parents to arrange and pay for private tutoring.
- The rules only apply to “off campus training institutions”. They do not apply to private tutors.
- Even if they did apply to private tutors, there is little the PRC government could do to regulate online training by private individuals. The so-called “Great Firewall” is a blunt tool that is only practical for blocking large organizations based on their internet IP address.
I’ve seen plenty of online commentary wildly speculating about what effect this will have on the ability of independent English teachers to sell their services online. A lot of these comments are not based on any objective evidence and don’t pass the “sniff test”. To refute all them would require a much longer blog post, so I’ll save that for another time.
What I will say is that in any market situation where supply is artificially restricted and demand still remains, there is a huge opportunity for new service providers to enter the market and charge premium rates.
In fact, there is already something of a scramble taking place where parents of Chinese students are frantically trying to arrange WeChat account or email contact with their regular ESL teachers before these big ESL companies go offline. I’ve had one teacher tell me that a parent literally told her to “name her price”.
The Chinese Internet Environment
There are many technical issues around Chinese internet censorship. Any discussion about selling goods or services online to the mainland needs to deal with the elephant in the room, the Great Firewall (GFW).
The GFW is, according to Wikipedia “a combination of legislative actions and technologies enforced by the People’s Republic of China to regulate the Internet domestically”.
A number of popular internet services which exist outside China are either blocked completely or have their service “throttled”. Many commonly used services from non-Chinese internet companies are often unusable within the PRC. There are some tools available such as GreatFire to test whether any given service is blocked or available within the People’s Republic.
Mainland China’s internet connection speeds vary quite a bit depending on the location. It’s a big country, covering vast distances and the market is served by three main Internet Service Providers; China Unicom, China Telecom, and China Mobile. Connection speeds tend to vary according to location. Strangely, you shouldn’t assume that well-developed cities on the coast like Shanghai offer better internet connectivity than more rural provinces. China’s overall internet speed has been ranked at 55th out of 78 compared nations by Akamai Technologies. That would place them behind countries such as Sri Lanka, Vietnam and Kenya.
China has three submarine optic fiber entry/exit points for all internet traffic. They are located in Qingdao, Shanghai, and Shantou. Since there are only three entry/exit points for international internet access, this creates a bottleneck for all users within China connecting to foreign hosted sites. Anecdotally, trans-Pacific data transfer can become quite congested during peak usage times on both sides of the ocean. Furthermore, the USA government has recently instigated caps on bandwidth for Chinese users using the trans-Pacific cables. Previous plans to extend that infrastructure appear to be stalled. My advice for anyone who wants a website targeted to Chinese mainland users would be to choose a hosting vendor with a data facility already located in East Asia.
Your Web Pages
To teach English online to Chinese students, you will need a web page sales funnel. If you hire a developer to create your landing pages, be sure to ask a few technical questions about how it is built. Many websites incorporate code from sources which are banned or restricted. Google services are especially problematic. Many web pages are built using text fonts from Googles Font library. Popular DIY website builder services like WIX and Squarespace don’t work well in China for that reason. If you have a website, it is best to use “system fonts” only i.e. the standard fonts which come installed on every (Windows) computer.
The majority of websites use a Google tracking code to measure and analyze visitor traffic and this may cause issues with page load times in China. According to Kevin Lepsoe, Founder and CEO of consulting firm CHINAFY.com “… in any case where you rely on Google resources to be loaded from Google Cloud, you’ll have variable results.” Hence, it is probably best to remove Google analytics or anything connected with Google products from your web pages.
Video hosting services YouTube and Vimeo are banned. So if you want to show video 📽️ on your website you’ll need to self-host it. This in turn creates a bunch of additional problems. General best practice is to never host videos on your own server account. Most website hosts are not optimized for video delivery in the same way as YouTube and other dedicated video hosting services. That can lead to a slow, jerky playback experience for the user. It can also slow down your website overall which impacts on your user experience and SEO performance. A sudden unexpected spike in views to your website could blow through whatever hosting bandwidth ceiling you have.
Because self-hosting videos is problematic, you should speak to your web hosting company about whether they offer a Content Delivery Network (CDN) service. With a CDN, you can automatically move large media assets to “storage buckets” at multiple points around the globe. This cuts the delivery time between your web server and the end user, improving the overall video experience. Look for a CDN which has a bucket in Hong Kong. Alternatively you could upload your video to one of the Chinese video hosting platforms like YouKu or Tencent Video and link to them. These services are available in Chinese language only.
You might be wondering if a simple solution to the GFW problem is to host your website within the borders of China. Any website hosted within China MUST have an Internet Content Provider License (ICP License) from the Chinese Authorities. Hosting on a server within China is realistically NOT an option unless you are willing to:
- wade through an ocean of red tape AND
- wait several weeks AND
- find a local Chinese partner
Hong Kong is considered to be outside the GFW and therefore subject to censorship filters within China. However, it is obviously geographically close to the PRC and it’s probably your next best option. Data centers in Japan or South Korea are also good choices.
Occasionally, websites get accidentally hit with a GFW ban. The Chinese censorship authorities will block any site which they deem to contain material critical of the Chinese Communist Party. The way they do this is by blocking the website at the IP address level. This means that any websites sharing that IP address (which is common for low cost hosting providers) can be impacted. It’s a bit like living in a shared house and one of the members is caught for being involved in illicit activities. So the police decide to charge everyone in the house whether they were involved or not. The most practical solution in such cases is to get a dedicated IP address from your hosting company. On a basic hosting plan you might be able to get a dedicated IP address for $5/mth.
China has a unique social media environment. In order to teach English online to Chinese students you’ll need to consider how you can leverage the available tools to your advantage.
Besides Google, the GFW ban applies to most non-Chinese social media including such behemoths as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Therefore, the social media landscape within China is quite different to what most non-Chinese users would be familiar with. However, there are two services which you might already be using which ARE allowed – TikTok and LinkedIn.
TikTok is of course the video sharing app that has taken the world by storm in the last 12 months. TikTok and the Chinese version called Douyin are both owned by Chinese company ByteDance. Despite being technically “available” the Chinese company has taken measures to limit access and silo content for each app. You can’t download TikTok in China or access its content from your phone. If you search Chinese app stores, you’ll only find Douyin. Similarly, searching through the Google Play Store and Apple’s App Store outside China won’t bring up Douyin at all. In any case, TikTok may be hit with the same political complications faced by WeChat (see below).
LinkedIn is one of the few non-Chinese social media brands available on the mainland, mostly in its original form. Articles and posts are available although LinkedIn video is not. Hopefully the company’s Chinese presence won’t be impacted by any retaliatory measures in the wake of a TikTok/WeChat ban in the USA.
Maimai is a fast growing direct local competitor to LinkedIn. Maimai, similar to LinkedIn is a platform free to use. However, there are some paid options. VIP account starts with 68 CNY/month (about $US 10), and there are also advertising options.
WeChat is China’s “SuperApp”. If you want to teach English online to Chinese students, a WeChat account is highly advantageous. Everybody from 70 year old grandma’s to pre-teenage kids have it installed on their phones and use it on a daily basis. It’s a messaging device, a virtual business card exchange system, a digital wallet and more.
Zhihu is China’s Quora/Reddit. It’s a platform for people to ask questions and get answers. If you are not fluent in Chinese you’ll need some help from an auto translate tool to get the gist of conversations. But it’s a potentially a useful way to do market research about what kinds of things your target audience is having problems with and where you might be able to help.
QQ is China’s WhatsApp/Messenger. It is also the world’s 5th most visited website, according to Alexa.
At the end of June 2016, there were 899 million active QQ accounts. The service is owned by tech giant TenCent and offers microblogging, movies, and group and voice chat software.
Sina Weibo is China’s Twitter/FaceBook. The platform has 550 million monthly active users, with 33.8% user growth in just the last two years. With a Weibo account, Chinese users can keep up to date with major topics, repost them to followers, upload photos and video, comment on posts and send private messages.
Baidu Search Engine Optimization (SEO)
Google is the 800 pound gorilla of internet search globally. In China that role is filled by Baidu. Only 2.3% of all internet searches in China happen on the Google Search engine, presumably using VPN services. By comparison, Baidu dominates with 68.5% of the search market, as of 2017.
Baidu has often been criticized for not having full transparency around it’s search results. Often times it is very hard to distinguish between organic and paid results, even more so than Google.
According to Search Engine Experts Dragon Metrics, “Baidu is first and foremost a Chinese search engine. There is a massive explicit bias towards anything Chinese in Baidu’s algorithm. Whether it’s server location, content language, top-level domain (.cn), business address, backlinks, mentions, or citations — just about everything will be better for Baidu SEO if it’s from China or in Simplified Chinese.”
Some other known features of Baidu’s search algorithm:
- Baidu favors websites that update content frequently.
- Baidu gives more weight to a domain’s age than Google does. Generally speaking, it’s more difficult to rank well for a new site.
- Baidu seems to give more prominence in search results to content emanating from its own properties.
One such Baidu property is Baidu Zhidao. The platform is one of the most popular Q&A forums in China. Think of it as the Chinese Yahoo Answers. Marketing on Zhidao is excellent for building highly targeted traffic links since questions and answers on Zhidao tend to rank so highly.
Documentation about Baidu SEO is only a fraction of what is available around Google’s operations. If you are interested in learning more there is a great resource HERE.
When you teach English online to Chinese students, of course you will want to be paid 💰.
Let’s examine some payment system options.
PayPal, one of the most popular global online payment processing services is available to customers in China and does accept UnionPay, China’s most popular credit card. However, the vast majority of Chinese students may be unfamiliar with them.
Digital wallet payments are a more popular payment method within China. For example, 54% of online transactions in China involve Alipay or WeChat Pay. While it is possible to transfer money from one WeChat wallet to another WeChat wallet, the funds can only be redeemed through a Chinese bank account. WeChat is not an international money transfer app. e.g. If a student in China sends money via WeChat to an instructor with a WeChat account in South Africa, WeChat will send the money, but now the recipient in South Africa will also have a Chinese “wallet”. Unless the WeChat user from South Africa heads to China, they can’t access the money.
Online instructors with a Stripe account can send manual invoices to Chinese students allowing them to pay via AliPay. I have received advice directly from Stripe Customer Support which states “Any Stripe merchant can accept Alipay payments in CHY and get payout in the Stripe Account (supported) settlement currency”.
A good alternative for a lot of people will be MyTeacherShop.com, a project launched by Yoshua Reece who I interviewed for the BabelTEQ podcast. With his service you will get a simple payment page where you can direct clients to pay via AliPay or WeChat pay.
Two more payment service options are Payoneer and TransferWise. In both cases, the money sender and the money recipient will need to create accounts with those services.
Payoneer account holders can send and receive funds into their bank account, Payoneer e-wallet, or onto a re-loadable prepaid MasterCard debit card. Payoneer supports USD, EUR, GBP, CAD, AUD, JPY and CNH currencies.
TransferWise is a relatively new transfer company. TransferWise has a fixed declared fee that is usually between 0.5-1% of the transfer. Chinese students will need to pay you in maybe USD, Euros or some other currency since the Chinese Yen is not fully supported.
UPDATE: At the end of August 2021, Stripe announced that they will now be supporting Chinese Union Pay Credit Card payments if you are a vendor in one of 33 countries, including USA, UK, Australia and Canada.
Once you start to teach English online to Chinese students you’ll need a professional scheduling solution in order to manage appointments. The following web apps are all good options for managing bookings 🗓️ :
- Book Like a Boss
You’ll want to consider not only price but whether they offer important features like time zone detection and appointment reminders (email or SMS). Also check whether their calendar can be embedded on a website and whether they have an unbranded white label option.
Video Communication Platforms
You’ll need to decide how to communicate via video when you teach English online to Chinese students. WeChat is perhaps a good option for conducting trial lessons and initial sales calls because, as noted before, WeChat is ubiquitous. Chinese users are already very familiar with the platform and comfortable using it. WeChat isn’t ideal as an instructional platform though because it lacks a lot of the features that most teachers require for a professional online lesson environment.
Outside China, Zoom is probably the most popular choice for video connections because of the feature set it offers and it’s stable, high quality call environment. Unfortunately, since 2019, Zoom has become difficult to use within China. Officially, mainland Chinese users can still “join” a call but cannot host a call. I’ve heard multiple reports of teachers who have problems using Zoom with Chinese students in 2020. In general, when teaching private ESL students on mainland China, it’s best to use a Chinese video communication app. Not only will it be guaranteed to not be blocked by the GFW, but it will be easier for Chinese students to use.
Three popular choices are Zhumu, Voov Meetings and Classin. All three are optimized for the Chinese market.
Zhumu is essentially the same as Zoom. It’s the same technology; white labelled and rebranded by Zoom’s local partner.
Voov Meetings has similarities with Zoom and has the additional benefit of being a “sub-app” within the WeChat ecosystem i.e. students don’t need to install any additional software.
Classin has been designed specifically for Chinese online education. It has some interesting features like a virtual “dice roll” which could be great if your lesson plans involve a lot of game playing.
You might want to compare whether each option allows for webcam background blurring (or virtualization), co-annotation of screen materials, recording options, hardware requirements etc.
If you aren’t particularly comfortable downloading executable programs onto your computer (which is not unreasonable given Zoom’s 2019 security issues) there are browser based video communication tools as alternatives. Vectera, Eyeson, Vidthere, Classtra, Whereby and even Skype for Web all work fine within China. Facetime also works in China although the call quality might not be as good as you are used to and of course it requires both parties to have Apple devices.
Virtual Private Networks (VPN)
Some students may want to use a virtual private network (VPN). A virtual private network gives the user online privacy and browsing anonymity. With a VPN it is possible to disguise the IP address of your location and “pretend” to be connecting to the internet from a different location.
China based corporations need access to global information resources, therefore businesses in China can apply for a VPN license to circumvent the GFW. The situation for individuals is different. The Chinese authorities have been issuing fines, confiscating devices and even imprisoning users in politically sensitive places for using VPNs.
Nevertheless, it seems like VPN usage is still quite widespread. According to a 2017 study by consumer research firm GlobalWebIndex, 14 percent of Chinese internet users connect to a VPN daily. A subsequent VPN crackdown in 2018 culminated in the removal of all VPN apps by Apple from the Chinese App Store. Apparently though, the Chinese government has still not succeeded in fully shutting down VPN access as many foreign expats in the country still use them.
If you teach English online to Chinese students you’ll need to decide for yourself whether it’s ethically acceptable to encourage your student to use systems that could potentially get them into trouble with Chinese authorities.
If you sell online language training services to Chinese students that doesn’t necessarily mean you are limited to mainland China of course. Taiwan and Hong Kong have majority ethnic Chinese populations. In addition, depending on how you classify “overseas Chinese” there are possibly as many as 42 million more people who identify as part of the “Chinese Diaspora“. Bloomberg reported in Feb 2020 that 11 million Chinese who live outside the PRC were intending to return to the ancestral home for Chinese New Year celebrations.
These “overseas” Chinese can be equally important targets for your marketing campaign, without all the restrictions of mainland China. Many of these overseas Chinese can act as referrals and introduce you to their friends, family and other connections on the mainland.
Recruiting Local Support
Perhaps due to the number of consumer scandals over recent years, trust in advertising seems considerably lower in China than in the west. The “click-through” rate on display ads is about one quarter of what it is on Google Ads. Word of mouth promotion is a critical success factor for any business in mainland China. Therefore, social media influencers (called Key Opinion Leaders or KOL) have a prominent role in Chinese marketing. If you can find a locally based Chinese KOL to partner with they could be very influential in promoting your services among Chinese students. If you enter into a commercial arrangement with a KOL, make sure that you have clearly defined performance metrics like how many times they will promote your service, at what times of day, on which social media platforms etc.
Upwork.com provides an opportunity for recruiting local marketing and customer support partners. The nature of business in China means that many customers want quick support from a native born Chinese speaker before they are willing to commit to a purchase. So it may be worthwhile checking out the work for hire platform to see if you can find someone in China to casually fill your local customer service role.
Finally, some teachers have had success finding students in China by using local “agents”. Such agents take responsibility for finding and recruiting students. The best way to handle an agent relationship is to pay on performance i.e. pay a commission based on a percentage of student fees over a given period like three or six months. I’ve heard of agent arrangements occurring organically when former students become “sales agents” for their former teachers. I’ve also heard of some people having success in finding agents by running Craigs List ads in several major Chinese cities. A local partner can be a great asset to help you find and teach English online to Chinese students.
China is a big economic opportunity for freelance English instructors. There is a good income to be made from teaching English online to Chinese students. However, it will require some planning and work to overcome the obstacles around China’s unique internet environment, business culture and ESL market situation. Always keep in mind that the Great Firewall (GFW) is constantly changing and any internet business strategy concerning Chinese customers needs to be flexible and adaptable. I recommend that instructors consider the following:
- Rely too much on any given mobile app or web app within your business model.
- Use YouTube, Facebook or most other popular social media to promote yourself in China. Nearly all are blocked.
- Use DIY page builder platforms like WIX and SquareSpace. Almost none of them are optimized for passing the GFW filter.
- Spend too much time worrying about Chinese market SEO. Baidu search optimization is even tougher than Google and your time would be better spent doing other promotional strategies.
- Choose a web developer who has some experience in optimizing for the Chinese market.
- Choose a hosting location in East Asia. Ideally they should at least have a CDN bucket in Hong Kong.
- Use email marketing to grow your audience. Email communication is more reliable than apps over the long term.
- Try to find local partners who can help you grow your business in China, either through Craigs List, Upwork or other contacts.
I hope this article has helped illustrate the online landscape for anyone who is planning to teach English to Chinese students as a freelancer. If you find any of the tips helpful, please leave a comment below.
The author of this post lives in Japan with his wife and family. He has taught English part-time (online and off) for more than a decade. He is passionate about WordPress consulting, online marketing and using the power of the internet to help people achieve their dreams.
He thinks that until you’ve tried sashimi tuna with wasabi, soy sauce, hot sake and a cold beer chaser, you just haven’t lived.