Protocol | Workplace

I lost my job in China’s ed tech crackdown

As a parent myself, I am all for easing the burden on kids. As a worker hurt by the new policy, I feel helpless.

A desk in an empty office.

Beijing's ed tech crackdown has resulted in massive layoffs.

Photo: Con Keyes/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Editor's note: Beijing's sweeping crackdown on China's once-lucrative ed tech and private tutoring industry — which mandates existing disciplinary tutoring companies register as nonprofit organizations and bans them from financing through public listings —has triggered massive layoffs. The author of the story, nicknamed Kele, is one of the tech workers who lost his job following the policy overhaul.

This article is translated and adapted by Protocol's Shen Lu from a recent episode of Story FM, with permission. It has been edited for clarity. Story FM (故事 FM) is one of the most popular Chinese podcasts, featuring personal stories narrated in the first person by ordinary Chinese from the margins to the mainstream. It has 2 million listeners across the world. Listen to the original story in Kele's own voice here (Mandarin).

I worked as a programmer at a large private tutoring company in Beijing. I lost my job on Aug. 13.

That day, my manager called me to a meeting when I was discussing bugs with colleagues from other teams. She started the conversation by beating around the bush. But I knew what might be coming; management had quickly responded to new education rules by restructuring. Some colleagues had been called to meetings that morning; I had expected the worst. So I told her, "Let's cut to the chase."

She explained that even though I had impressive skills, the company now only needed to keep workers for general business operations. She said she was sorry. I said calmly, "I understand." I heard that the layoffs were company wide. My department alone laid off dozens.

I started this job about a year ago. Looking back, it was the heyday of the ed tech industry, when every major player was extensively recruiting and expanding office buildings, and their ads appeared in every elevator and every subway car. My company employed tens of thousands of people across China. On the first day of work, I felt that I was finally working for a decent internet company.

Rumors about a strict crackdown on the education industry started circulating around the Lunar New Year holiday. The actual tightening began in April, which set off the initial wave of panic, and companies started to consider transition plans and responses to forthcoming policies.

The shoe dropped on July 24, when the "double alleviation" policy finally came down. [Editor's note: The stated purpose of Beijing's new rules is to alleviate the burden of homework and after-school tutoring for students. In China, this is known as the "double alleviation" policy.] It was a Saturday. My WeChat Moment feed was flooded with news and discussions about the new rules. Reactions ran the gamut. Messages in the parents groups I joined came in nonstop. Most of those who were against the policy worked in the tutoring industry and were facing layoffs. Some of the more open-minded parents who hated after-school tuition with a passion were very supportive of the policy.

As a parent myself, I am all for easing the burden on kids. Parents should accompany children as they grow, rather than leaving them in the hands of teachers. I think the "double alleviation" policy is a wake-up call for parents, reminding them of their responsibilities.

As a worker impacted by the new policy, I feel helpless. But I'll just have to deal with it. The private tutoring market is indeed distorted. Tutoring is a profit-making tool for companies. Nobody is running a tutoring company as a public service with a sense of mission. So I think in some way, the government strike is inevitable.

I've also seen the ugliness of a big company. So I don't regret leaving it now. Every middle manager was extremely territorial. They were not trying to get things done, but only to build their own turf so no one could threaten their position. A week before the layoffs, the management convened, and they shared a video of their meeting with us. In the meeting, the executives said, "At this stage, we must not take the wind out of the government's sails. At this stage, we must avoid disciplinary education. At this stage, we must not challenge the government's bottom line." The emphasis was on "at this stage." I don't trust tutoring companies; they are capital-driven. And I have zero trust in capital.

After I signed paperwork with HR for employment termination, I went back to my desk, took a deep breath and then texted my wife: "I was laid off." She didn't reply. So I called her. She suggested rather cooly, "Shall we return to our hometown?"

I am from a small town. There aren't many job opportunities there. If we went back, we'd basically be eating into our savings or finding gigs through friends. I was not ready for that. By the end of our call, we were both in a bad mood.

My wife is also in the education industry. Our life in Beijing looks decent, but we are actually only getting by. We are Beijing drifters. We don't have a Beijing Hukou. [Editor's note: The Hukou refers to China's Household Registration System, which determines each person's permanent residence and access to benefits and social services, and often penalizes urban migrants.] Our car doesn't have a local plate. We have a child to put through school and a mortgage to pay off. My severance can only last us for three months, at most.

People think that it'd be easy for a software engineer to find a new job. But not really. There aren't many options for programmers at my age. Companies will hire a 30-year-old software engineer, but not a 30-year-old entry-level software engineer. They will take into account the cost and risk of hiring programmers like me. I am facing a transition in my career. And it'd take me much longer to master a new skill or a new field than it would for the company to get a recent graduate.

Though I acted calm about my layoff, deep down I was devastated. My wife and child were not home that day. So I asked a few former colleagues out for dinner, hoping to see if there might be self-employment opportunities. I had a glass of beer, and it was a little too much. I felt dizzy and sick when I got home. I slept on the couch that night.

At dawn, I woke up. Sitting on the couch and looking at my untidy reflection in the mirror, I felt afraid.

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