Or at least some of them, including three that were among the best-known in the industry, Kai En, Linguaphone and World Link Education. How and why these schools collapsed, resulting in several of the owners fleeing China, leaving their teachers with unpaid wages and their students locked out of shuttered schools, is the subject of this excellent article on Danwei.
[An important side-note: It isn't just the article that's fascinating. Jeremy Goldkorn's preface to it is equally so: From now on, he says, Danwei is going to have a new mission, with emphasis on providing in-depth articles on stories about China that aren't covered in the mainstream English-language media, for whatever reasons. If this article is any indication of the quality of what's to come I'd say they're off to an auspicious start.]
More than offering breaking news, the article ties together a lot of material that’s been out there and makes it seamless. I had been following the story of Kai En’s downfall on Shanghaiist and was even going to blog about it last year. Then I decided there was no point; word was out, I couldn’t contribute much, and I felt funny about the whole thing; I had met Ken Carroll for dinner (a big group dinner with much of the Chinese Pod team) the year before, and I thought it would be better not to comment on their troubles.
And I’m pretty much sticking to that now. This is an article you have to read, but I don’t have much to add to it, except that I’m sorry it ended this way for Ken. I never did business with him, but he was charming, brilliant, and we had the best talk on Shakespeare I’ve ever enjoyed. And I’m especially sorry because his flight must have sent out shock waves that affected several people I truly admire.
The overarching lesson in the article is about growing too fast. I’ve worked for more than one company that went belly-up because they enjoyed a big initial success and then tried to expand too quickly. In the case of Kai En, there’s a lot of personal intrigue added to the mix, which makes this article a page-turner. But this story should be studied by everybody doing business in China now, or thinking of doing business there in the future. It should also be read by everyone considering teaching English there.
One other point. This is also a story about the global financial crisis, how it’s changed the lives of working Chinese and forced them to change their plans, like studying English. It’s true that China hasn’t suffered like the US and much of Europe have, but it’s only a matter of degree. The crisis has shaken China into new socioeconomic alignments that will be in effect for years. That’s the tie that binds the three collapsed schools. And you have to wonder if they’re the only ones sent reeling.
Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.