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Advice on "confronting" Chinese boss on a major issue.


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Hi all,

I'm an Oral English teacher at Chinese high school. Tomorrow I'm going to have a meeting with my boss, and, to just go straight to the heart of the matter, I want to tell her I would like to quit due to issues back in my home country, America. I'm seeking any "cultural" advice from people who are much more familiar with I than dealing with such situations in Chinese culture.

Unfortunately, the situation isn't clean cut at all, so I'll lay down some background information...

Normally, this situation is fair and simple. If a foreign "expert" wants to leave early, he can pay his breach of contract fee and then go. Naturally, I, like anyone, would like to avoid this fee which stands at "$500 - $2000" according to wording in the contract, and during my year here every time I've seen this penalty deployed as a threat the administration "goes for the gold" and waves around the maximum $2000 fine (and yes, funnily enough, the administration's treatment of its foreign teachers has lead to multiple occasions of teachers threatening to leave early). However, unlike most foreign teachers in this situation I think I have a legitimate reason to avoid paying the fine - I'm just not sure how to best use this situation without causing a fuss and making everyone "lose face."

So, here's the deal: I come to China, bright eyed and busy tailed, fresh out of college with a degree in East Asian Studies, ready to rock. I start teaching at the school and its not until a month into my teaching that I get presented a contract to sign - and its not that the school is shady, I know for a fact that it is actually one of the most elite public schools in the region - but rather, that they are "new" to hiring foreign teachers and so tend to handle affairs a little incompetently. Anyways, in October, my FAO goes into our shared computer room and "prints out" a contract for me to sign. I find it strange - do contracts really just come from printers like that? Mere word documents? In a paper-work-loving country like China? But I read it over, read the appendix, and sign it. Okay, so I'm contracted with the school. Right? Well, wrong.

Imagine my surprise when in February, right after I return to China from America where I spent spring festival, the "peon" English faculty member who is sent to do dirty work with the foreign teachers marches into my classroom, in between classes, 50 students leaving, 50 students coming in, and during this chaos throws a document on my dress and curtly commands me to sign it. Woah, woah, what is this? I glance at the cover, and there, I see "合同". I'm a little confused and quite offended. Why does this say "contract?" Why are you trying to force me to sign this hastily in such a chaotic situation? I bow down to my American legal instincts and tell him I'd like to read it first. He seems annoyed that I didn't fall for their trap of just signing it without looking at it since I would presumably be "too distracted" in between classes.

Anyways, I go home, and compare it to my old contract I signed in October. I'm quite surprised. The contract they handed me in February actually seemed like a real contract. Unlike the "old contract," this new contract did not come from a printer. It is a booklet, it has red number stamped on the front cover, and the cover pages have a light water mark that says "SAFEA," State Administration of Foreign Expert Affairs. Basically, the new contract is a real contract. The old contract was just some junk printed from a PC printer. And for anyone who may think that the old contract is still valid, on the new, state-endorsed, official, the words "复制无效“ and "Copies are Invalid" are prominently printed on the front pages.

My first instinct is to compare the wording of the "old" and "new" contract. Shockingly, the old contract, which was printed from a word document, is conspicuously missing the warning on the official contract that "Copies are Invalid." Obviously, FAO backspace'd it out, because she didn't want me to realize that what she was giving me had no efficacy. Also different were the contract dates - on the old contract, I work until 7-20, on the new one, they changed it to 8-20. Hoping I wouldn't notice. And furthermore, the "date of signing" on the "new" contract was already filled out: although they gave me the contract at the end of February, it actually says that the contract was signed on "23th day of July 2007," a date on which I wasn't even in the country. And naturally, the legalistic American in me refuses to sign a contract in March that says I signed it in July.

In a nutshell, I told them I would "think about it" before signing their contract. They tried a few times to put a fire under me by telling me "it had to be mailed by 8:00 on Monday" or whatever. But usually their deadline would pass without a peep, which leads me to believe they were lying just to get me to sign the contract. Eventually, their protestations and my questions died down. Both sides settled in quietly - into an unspoken agreement, I guess. The contract is unsigned, but I worked on anyways. It's sitting here right in front of me as I type.

Come May. Issues come up in America. Don't want to go into too much detail, but let's say it involves planning a marriage - in other words, it's a good thing, not a bad thing (a coworker of mine left his contract in December because of a sick family member). But I absolutely must go home by the beginning of June. Which means I need to tell my boss I want to leave early, and I'll be damned if they try to force me to pay a breach of contract fee on a non-existent contract.

BUT! This is China. I can't tromp into their office and say "NEENER neener, we don't have a contract, screw you guys, I'm going home." I want to be tactful about it. Also, I do want to come back to this province in the future as I love this place dearly, but if I piss off the administration of this school, which I already mentioned is elite and well known in this area, well, I may damage my prospects for working here again. So I want to know if anyone has any advice for using this "leverage" in a way that can still save everyone face. I want to go in and say, please permit me to leave, and please do not force me to pay the breach of contract fee. I have some ammunition - I've worked very hard, I have a high approval rating, I've done far more for my students then the other foreign teachers I've seen do (this is less bragging about my abilities and more speaking on the tendency for a lot of teachers to lose steam and enthusiasm under the teaching circumstances here), such as buying a ton of books and bringing them from America, filming my family and my life in America and showing them videos after I returned, and making a full blown American style yearbook for the students. Tit-for-tat... I did good for your kids, please let me leave early. And then my back up ammunition if that doesn't work is - well, we don't have a contract. But I don't know how I can "use" this as a "weapon" without going overboard and simply pissing them off. Any tips?

Okay, that was way too much. I won't be surprised if nobody reads through that, but it's worth a shot, right? Thanks in advance for any help...:oops:

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In fact, the official-looking contract you have is required by the authorities before they will issue Z-visas or residence permits. These are new, so it is quite possible that at the time you initially started working at the school it wasn't a requirement. However, these contracts are a one-fits-all kind of thing, and are not very adaptable to individual organizations. Therefore, most will offer their own contract, which is usually seen as 'the' contract, whilst the government one is just a formality to get the residence permit and whatever official documents are required. From a legal point of view, I don't know how the school's contract would be viewed. However, I don't understand why you think a contract coming out of a printer is suspicious. I mean, where do you expect a printed contract to come from?

As for not having to pay the breech of contract fee, that might be a difficult one. If the school is nice, they may let you get away with it. But otherwise, the best you could probably do is wait for payday, then leave and cut your losses on any outstanding pay.

I wouldn't worry so much about not being able to go back though. From the way I understand things around here, once you're gone, the school will probably think you are irresponsible, and tar all foreigners with the same brush, but won't bother with the effort of taking any further action.

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You might want to have a read of this. Personally I'd be more worried about them withholding final month salary, any air ticket money owed, and making your remaining time there miserable.

If you want to give them advance notice I'd just tell them you need to go back home for personal reasons and see how they react. Not much else you can do. If you want to be dishonest tell them you're planning to come back next year and they might be nicer to you on that basis. Or you could just up sticks and leave. Depends on how badly you feel you've been treated. Although to date, bar the extra month on the contract, they're actually working legitimately, just inefficiently - the extra contract is a part of the being a legal teacher thing, and it's entirely common to have both that and a more specific contract from the school.

If they start threatening USD2000 fines, ask them how the actual figure is determined. I think it would be necessary to go through a SAFEA hearing process - they might not want the hassle, especially if there's dirty laundry to be aired. Giving advance notice should automatically mean a lesser fine - but anyway, has anyone actually paid that breach fee?

When does term end? To be honest high school teachers skipping out in the middle of a term is pretty poor behavior unless the school is really asking for it (which they might be, obviously I don't know all the details). If you can stick around till the end of term they *should* be more reasonable.

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what's the wording in the original contract, the one you signed, pertaining to penalty

clauses for early departure? seems that would be the contract in effect as it has been

signed. the other contract for now is unsigned so (should!) be unenforceable. does your

original contract have an escape clause for family emergencies?

the notation "copies are invalid" does not apply to other contracts, it just means that

only this here original is a valid contract. no xerox copies. your meaning would need

words to the effect of "this contract supersedes any previously signed contract" or similar.

not sure about chinese contract law, but it's my understanding that (in the u.s. at least),

a contract can be written on any material; bar napkins, toilet paper, tree bark, etc.

if all parties are sober, it's a contract. (by the way, if you decide to pay your income tax

bill by writing out a 'check' on dirty underwear, the irs will cash it.)

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I don't know anything about Chinese business practices, but everywhere in Europe and the US, a contract can be written with a crayon on a handkerchief and still be completely 100% valid. Verbal contracts are equally valid (no signature), but they require reliable witnesses. A contract from a printer is completely normal and valid, and if you both sign it, you are expected to fulfill whatever responsibilities are stated on that same contract.

The reason you often see these super-complicated booklet contracts is that they don't want to leave anything up to interpretation, which can sometimes be an issue with shorter contracts and can lead to long legal battles to determine what exactly was meant.

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To be honest high school teachers skipping out in the middle of a term is pretty poor behavior unless the school is really asking for it (which they might be, obviously I don't know all the details).

I agree with Roddy here. Who's going to take over your classes when you leave? Doesn't the term end in July anyway? If the marriage you are planning is your own, isn't that within your control, so that you can finish out the term before going back to get married?

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1. Don't give them anything in writing stating you want to leave the contact early. That can be held against you.

2. (And this comes from experience with a few places with a guessed similar mentality.) Send a message - something save-able - stating your desire to leave, do not mention your contract.

3. When the school informs you this is against their contract, as for your contract. Given what you've already stated the SAFEA contract was signed without a witness outside of your time entering China.

'Good' schools are often the ones best pulling the strings, and they know it. Many Chinese teachers (of all subjects) put up with poor treatment at 'good' schools because they can command the school's reputation doing private tuition. The school commands teachers' contract time and often demands a fee if the (Chinese) teacher leaves. The normal workflow of the 'good' school is built on this trade-off. If you've got no close friend in the school's management, getting out of a contract early will rub hard against middle management (if not senior management who see a long term case in terms of a long term reputation with quality foreign teachers, the middle management see a deficiency in their control open up) and they will ride against it.

Just quit. Inform the school of unavoidable personal/family circumstances and nothing else. You may well lose a month's pay in arrears, but fighting it would take months. If you have no good personal friends in the school's management you have no face to gain by doing it any other way... because you have no real face with them anyway. [sorry, I tried to think of a nicer way to phrase this, but could not come up with anything less blunt, because the situation is blunt.]

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As mentioned by others, the printed booklet contract from SAFEA is the official one required to be signed by you in order to get a working visa and residence permit. It is not that new, and in Hebei at least has been required since at least 2005. Out of curiousity, what kind of visa did they bring you in on?

To me, it sounds like the school is simply trying to legitimize everything after the event rather than trying to somehow cheat you. Did they give a reason as to why they extended the original contract date by a month?

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Thanks to all of your for reading my situation and providing some feedback.

First of all, several people have mentioned a signed contract is required to get a working visa. This is sort of a can of worms. I did get in on a valid visa - that's not the suspicious part. I sent my application, my degree, all the materials to the school's FAO before I came, and they responded (although pull-my-hair-out-late) with the proper stuff I needed to get an Z-visa from the Los Angeles consulate. No contract was signed during that process, and the whole correspondence was conducted between myself in LA and my FAO who actually was in Australia at the time. This was my first time trying to get a job in China so it didn't cross my mind that it was suspicious they got a legitimate visa without me signing any contract.

But, now that I've been here 8 months (and am far more cynical) I've learned through the expat grapevine that at least two teachers suspect that contracts were signed FOR them, without their consent, in absentia. Also, you may have noticed I decided not to sign the SAFEA contract but that the 矛盾 ("conflict," the word my boss used when we were discussing) quietly subsided and nobody piped up, and the contract is still sitting unsigned in my drawer. I have had occasional suspicions as to why they stopped bothering me about my contract... including the possibility that the signed another copy of the contract for me and sent it in, which strikes me as an extraordinarily unethical, unscrupulous, and sloppy act which could probably be easily overcome in court, regardless of bribery and guanxi, with a simple handwriting test. That's a dark possibility, and of course since my goal is a clean break, I don't want to go there unless I absolutely have to. Anyways, in a nutshell: how do we get visas without signing a contract? I'm now the third person that is highly concerned about the possibility of the school signing contracts on their own.


Anonymoose: Haha, yes, well, the fact that it came out of a printer is not suspicious, but the circumstances under which it was printed indeed were suspicious - just a ho-hum run of the mill printer in the dormitory from a word document. Now, I understand your point about schools and companies offering their own contracts as the "base contract" isn't flexible and needs to have appendices, but what I want to emphasize is that the contract that was printed out in October wasn't the school's contract... it is an EXACT copy of the standard SAFEA contract, except that the "Copies are Invalid" clause is missing and a whole paragraph on what happens when Party A (the school) breaks the contract is also missing. So I'm not talking about the "school contract" which actually is a separate appendix, I'm talking about what amounts to a forged copy of the official contract.

Roddy: The three concerns - salary, airfare comp, and making life miserable - are also my concerns, too. I'll have to iron those out after I figure out the breach of contract fee. A previous teacher had to fight tooth and nail to leave early at the school and he advised me that the school is indeed scared of a SAFEA hearing and backed down at the prospect of going to court. Also, I want to emphasize again as I did with anonymoose that these two contracts I'm dealing with, the "printed" one from October and the "SAFEA" one from February are NOT two separate contracts, the old one being the "customized" school one and the new one being the official state one. The old one was worded exactly as the SAFEA one with a few strategic exceptions. It wasn't an appendix to accomodate the school's needs - it was a underhandedly modified forgery of the new one they gave me. The term ends around June 20th - so I'd be leaving 30 days early. The students had their mid terms two weeks ago.

Mr. Stinky: The clause in both contracts states: "If party B asks to cancel the contract due to events beyond control [sic], it should produce certifications by the departments concerned, obtain Party A's consent, and pay its own return expenses; if Party B cancels the contract without valid reason, it should pay its own return expenses and pay a breach penalty to Party A." Its pretty vague, with this stuff about "consent" and "valid reason." I hope tomorrow I can come to an agreement that its a "valid reason" and obtain their "consent." As for "copies are invalid," again, I apologize for being unclear in the OP, I think the contract printed in October is an "invalid copy" because it is word for word the SAFEA contract with the omission of 1) the "copies are invalid" clause and 2) the obligations of Party A should they cancel the contract.

Renzhe: Hi, sorry to repeat myself - just see above. The super-complicated fancy contract actually is the same as the contract they gave me in October. You're right about a contract on a napkin written in crayon being valid - but what if its an exact duplicate of a formal, government sponsored contract which clearly contains the warning that duplicates are invalid?

Axel Manbow: Thanks for your points about the school hierarchy. Unfortunately, since the school is "new" in terms of hiring foreign teachers, dealing with problems is actually addressed directly with rather uncomfortably high-ranking members of the administration. I'm saying if my plumbing breaks, the person I actually call is the Director of Education Research (教研部的主任) and if that doesn't work I skip directly to the school's principal. It's kind of bizarre, but its simply because the school has yet to create an administrative infrastructure to deal with the crazy, demanding foreign teachers. No hard feelings for the bluntness - I know I don't have any face, except for the performance I've done as a teacher which apparently has garnered high approval ratings from the students - whatever that means.

Imron: It was an Z visa - I don't know how I got an Z visa and then signed my first contract a month and a half after teaching. They didn't explain the month-long difference between the two nearly identical contracts - nor did they even explain why they were giving me a slightly different, SAFEA published "second contract" in the first place.

Again, thanks. All your advice has done lots for helping me formulate my "conversational strategy" tomorrow. :oops:

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I agree with Roddy here. Who's going to take over your classes when you leave? Doesn't the term end in July anyway? If the marriage you are planning is your own, isn't that within your control, so that you can finish out the term before going back to get married?

Sorry Gato, I missed your reply. The term does and in July - if I skipped out at the end of May as I plan too, I'll be leaving about 30 days earlier than the end of the semester - as for the marriage issue. It's kind of complex, it involves the families, the timing, my fiancee's job. It's quite a mess, but it's best if I leave now. I can also say that in response to the news my family already got a ticket for me. And the fiancee. Who is coming to pick me up. That's another question I might as well through out to all you charitable souls - how much exactly am I supposed to divulge from my personal life to sate their need for an explanation? There are a lot of reasons why I have to leave now - my fiancee has some major job obligations down the road, our religious beliefs call for an extended period of preparation, pre-marriage counseling, etc., etc. I mean the reasons are there, I just am not sure if I should feel obligated to explain in detail the upcoming events in my fiancee's life and my religious belief system. When in China is it appropriate to say, "Personal family reasons?" I know ideas about privacy are very different here. Nor do I want to talk about religion with the administrators when one of the other teachers here is a seventh day adventist missionary who is driving all of us insane by threatening our very continued existence here.

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Basically it all sounds like a mess :mrgreen:

So you're still on the F visa? That's just full stop dubious if so, and it makes me wonder why they've even got the SAFEA contracts floating around - you have to pay for them, you don't just pick up a bundle on the off chance you need them. Sounds like you're dealing with an incompetent administration rather than a malicious one though.

They wouldn't need a signed contract to get you an F visa. They would normally need one to get you a working visa or residence permit. Not sure if you now have those. But as always things are flexible and if they have good local connections they may have just been able to say 'yes, we'll handle that later' and do what they wanted to do.

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In my experience at two small old jobs in the US when I had to leave them, they were REALLY appreciative that I pretty much found them a replacement for me. In one case I offered to train the replacement when they didn't even ask me to. If you can find someone to take your place and tell the school you will give that person some supplies and lesson plans to get started I'd bet you'd have a pretty smooth transition, even if that person is upfront about being just temporary until the end of the semester. I know china is different, but humans are humans... leaving at this point *is* kind of.... uncool. I know you have your reasons, but still, if you could find someone to take your place, that might help a lot.

For tomorrow's meeting, even just tell the boss you started asking around for a replacement and maybe fib a little and say you emailed two people and are waiting to hear back from them, etc.


Email me and wait to hear back from me, you won't be lying. (I'll even make up an excuse for you why I can't do it, haha)

Hmm... family is important to chinese people... especially parents. Blame it on your parents & fiance's parents. Go on about how unreasonable they're being but of course you MUST listen to them because they're your fiance's parents, blahblahblah,....

Good luck.

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Actually, that first contract still isn't so suspicious. The wording and the booklets are just a formalised version of a contract for English teachers that loads of schools used to use. I taught for a total of 3 years in China. The first 2 years of that were on the older style "printed on a printer" contracts, and the last year of that was when SAFEA brought in the standardised contract booklet. It was almost word for word the same as the previous printed out contracts.

Also regarding the Z visa, the signed contract isn't required for the visa, but it is required for the residence permit which is issued within 30 days of entering on the Z visa.

Finally, I'd bet that they probably did just sign a copy of the contract and send that off. But I don't think it's because they're trying to be devious, but rather because they realise it's a piece of paperwork that the bureacracy needs and so they will try to provide it as expediently as possible. They know that to make things legit, they need this signed contract. If it needed to be signed and sent off by a specified date and you wouldn't sign it, then signing it themselves would be the easiest way to solve the problem. In a weird kind of way, it sounds like they were going out of their way to ensure that you were legitimately employed. Getting all the correct paperwork and using the standard issue contracts doesn't come cheap.

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Assuming that they insist that both contracts are valid, is there any advice from you guys reconciling this "hard" fact with commentary I've seen on other posts, often by the same people who are posting here, who say that the breach of contract is generally unenforceable and something "people shouldn't worry about?" It looks like I may get into an argument about the validity of the contract, but should I "lose" that argument, I may be "facing" a $2000 breach of contract fee... but at the same time, the collective wisdom of a lot of posters here, (who I believe probably have several decades worth of combined experience in China and with teaching) tells me that nobody is aware of the breach fee being enforced - that instead, the most they've seen happen to people are immediate evictions and visa revocations. To be really frank, I can handle something like a "move it very soon" sort of punishment. I'm not sure if I could handle a $2000 fee, however.

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That's another question I might as well through out to all you charitable souls - how much exactly am I supposed to divulge from my personal life to sate their need for an explanation? There are a lot of reasons why I have to leave now - my fiancee has some major job obligations down the road, our religious beliefs call for an extended period of preparation, pre-marriage counseling, etc., etc. I mean the reasons are there, I just am not sure if I should feel obligated to explain in detail the upcoming events in my fiancee's life and my religious belief system. When in China is it appropriate to say, "Personal family reasons?" I know ideas about privacy are very different here.

What would you do back home? If you think it would be acceptable to leave a teaching job at an equivalent institution back in the US a month before the end of term and simply say for "personal family reasons", then you should feel comfortable about doing the same in China. It seems to me that you feel bad about leaving a month short of the end of term, but don't want to get penalized for it. Irrespective of what country you're in, I think you're being irresponsible. Not only are you breaking contract and leaving the school in the lurch a month before the end of term (for arguably self-centered reasons), but you're putting more pressure on the remaining foreign staff, and leaving a bad taste in the mouths of your employers which will affect the way they treat future foreign staff. As Roddy has mentioned, I don't think the school is acting maliciously at all, just incompetently. Many foreigners often jump to conclusions when they don't understand something and take a pessimistic view, which is often backed up by others who have jumped to the same sorts of conclusions. The only thing in all that you've written that I think was not quite right from on the school's part was to present you with the official contract in between classes and ask you to sign it without giving you the opportunity to read it through and ask any necessary questions. If you had concerns about your employment situation, it was your responsibility to sort them out - by not doing so, you tacitly agreed to the school's conditions.

As someone who has employed many a foreigner before, I can sympathize with both your personal situation and that of your employer. If I were your boss, I would want you to give me as much detail as you felt comfortable with about your reasons for leaving. The human side of me would want to let you go with as little fuss as possible, given that getting married is one of life's most joyous moments. However, the "employer" side of me would be annoyed at the position you've put the school in, and there would be responsibilities that I would have towards upper management - by not doing my utmost to make you stay, I would be failing in my responsibility to the school and other staff members.

Having said all that, if you're determined to leave, so long as you have your passport in hand, there isn't much the school can do to stop you. They won't be able to force you to pay a penalty, but as others have suggested, they could very well withhold due wages, which under the circumstances would not be unreasonable at all. It's probably too late, but I think your best bet is to apprach the school under the assumption that they haven't deliberately tried to hoodwink you at all, be as open with them as you feel comfortable about the reasons why you want to leave, and try and appeal to the human side of whoever you're talking to. I wouldn't tell them that a ticket has already been arranged and that your fiance is coming to pick you up, at least not initially. You're not going to get anywhere by not providing any leeway to the school whatsoever right from the beginning. You probably shouldn't give them an exact date that you'll be leaving on though, until you get a feel for how they are going to react.

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First time I hear of this SAFEA contract (not a teacher) and it's quite surprising they have this "breach penalty" clause considering that according to local law regulation it's illegal to impose such a penalty on an employee - considering the school (I assume) is a non foreign company.

Did you also sign a contract in Chinese or just one in English (which doesnt count)?

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The official SAFEA contracts came in being around 2005 if I recall correctly. The contracts are a pair of bound, numbered and watermarked booklets issued by SAFEA, and contain both an English and a Chinese version of the contract in the same booklet (with both translations being equally valid).

Out of interest, would you also be able to provide a link to the law stating that it's illegal to impose a breach penalty?

I don't think the school is acting maliciously at all, just incompetently.
Agreed. How does that say go? Never attribute to malice what could easily be attributed to incompetence.
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Interesting. You're sure it was the bound, printed and watermarked contract with the red serial number in the top corner? The school I was at didn't have them until 2005, when it also became necessary to go to the capital of Hebei province to sort out the residence permits, instead of being able to get them done locally.

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