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I am a third-time postdoc, and had never before had problems with getting paid. For almost two years now I have been a postdoctoral fellow at a university in southern China. This is my first experience in Asia, and thus I am not sure of how common the situation I am facing is. Communication is arduous, not due to language differences, but a number of cultural traits which are hard to explain.

At the end of my previous contract, I contacted many institutions for job opportunities. I did not plan on accepting yet another postdoc, but these colleagues here convinced me (> 100-long-email negotiation) that I'd be paid a good salary, enjoy a good work environment, and easily take an assistant professor position as soon as conditions allowed. To make it clear, I signed a postdoctoral fellow contract for a 120k RMB salary per year, with a promise of an extra 60K RMB per year to be provided by the college. There are some extras on the contract, such as 10K RMB for purchasing a laptop, and reimbursement for moving expenses (to date, I never saw those).

I was instructed to apply for a visa after signing the contract. I needed a certain official document about which they claim they were unaware. After further email exchanges where I had pictures and links about the document, it took 2 months to get it by mail. This delayed my arrival btwo 2 weeks from the start of the contract, but over email they said that was no problem. In reality, they never paid me that 1st month while dismissing it by saying "probably will fix that later".

Another full month came without any pay, and apparently the administration couldn't agree with the bank on spelling my name, but I never knew the details. After many trips to the administration to find out what was wrong, I was paid ca. 5,500 RMB for the month. I tried to complain but no one would understand me. Then the confusion started.

I will try to summarise below as best as I can. It is really complicated, and everyone tells me "not to worry".

  • I get paid ca. 5K RMB as fixed salary on the 5th-6th every month.
  • Around the 25th they pay me another instalment which is highly variable, typically within 1.5K-4.2k RMB. (Tends to be higher before long holidays).
  • After one year I got ca. 90K RMB, irregularly paid out of the contract's 120K.
  • Only after aggressively complaining, hinting a lawsuit, I received 100K out of the promised extra 2x60K. (divided in 3 irregular transfers, made by some 18-y-old undergrad, late at night)

I get more info only by pressing uncomfortably hard. I was once told I'd get 13 payments per year (never happened). Then I was told some unspecified large sum is retained to fund my expenses to any trips/conferences I might wish to attend. I was not clearly informed of when or even if I would get the withheld amount. Few other postdocs openly discussed this problem with me, and they said (one Chinese and one foreigner) they had the same issue. The Chinese postdoc recently was offered to move to a new salary regime where he now gets a fixed, higher salary (took him months to tell me).

To make things even more complicated:

  • I have found in my internal access system some separate account originally containing 40K RMB under my name (some "funding" mentioning my name), which is being used to apparently pay internal procedures. Upon asking about it, I was told to "not worry about that". There are currently <20K RMB left in this virtual account.

  • A PI which is not the person I dealt with over emails is the person who signed my contract. According with local standards I am then supposed to consider him my "leader". This person is frequently absent, shows no interest in what I do, and refuses to reply any email about my salary/project. Now I am pushed to list this PI's name as last author in anything I write. My first paper from here is about to come out, and at the last minute I am requested to ask the editor to finally list this PI as the corresponding author.

I feel like I am being constantly blackmailed over retained promised salary payment. My visa expires in a few months. They passively owe me >80K RMB and I do not know what to do. I hear that suing is usually not advisable in China as lawyers ask for huge fees and judges tend to favor local standards and influential institutions/persons, plus the defendant will typically delay forever by refusing to engage.

I wish to ask whether anyone here had a similar situation, and would know what could be done? Particularly in China?

Before you ask: further unmentioned issues not directly related to salary finally did not make this a "healthy work environment". I am now informally told that "it is really hard for foreigners to get accepted locally as assistant professor because getting a major NSF grant is required, and that depends on significant connections (guanxi) and understanding of Chinese language/culture". Not that I was planning on staying longer, but just to clarify.

* UPDATE * 02/04/2018

I finally left China yesterday. I will summarise the chain of events and the current situation. I think I understand most of their scheme now.

About two months prior to my departure I started pressing the administration about the rest of the salary. They insisted a large, unspecified part, would be paid as soon as I finished all necessary exit procedures correctly. Moreover, the secretaries said a part of the payment would be retained as "taxes," but they were unable to specify what percentage nor type of taxes. Exit procedures included preparing lengthy reports which had not been requested before. At the same time they further reduced my salary, interrupting the last "2nd parts of salary" due to "unforeseen reasons" and said they'd try to fix that also at the very end!

After I quickly assembled reports and delivered all documents (signed by several professors who make it clear they are making some favor), the administration agreed to finally calculate how much they owed me. I went there several times only to hear back more nonsense. For instance they kept remarking they might not pay me for the last month "because I had delivered a final report prior to the end of the contract period" as they instructed!

Finally, after pressing them considerably, within 10 days of my departure they provided me their numbers. They would pay me a "reward" for completing documents, plus one month of basic salary, and promised a large sum adding up to the final amount... in exchange for invoices.

I confirmed with responsible PIs the need for invoices. They explicitly instructed me to buy invoices from companies they'd recommend by paying 10-15% of the declared value to "reimburse the rest of my salary". They insisted this is common procedure, offering help to "find invoices to exchange". I was shocked and refused.

I went to the Principal Office with a complaint letter, in English and Chinese. I spoke with the sub-secretary for 1h. They explain that what is declared on the contract as salary includes a significant amount which is to be spent with research only, and that invoices ensure the university can pay/reimburse. They say this is detailed in rules in Chinese in some book somewhere if anyone had questions. I made it clear nobody had ever clarified that, it should be explicated in the contract, and that I could not deal bogus invoices in exchange for payment. I told them I could only provide true invoices, which they accepted as a clean solution. They thanked me for "bringing me a major misunderstanding to their attention".

Finally I purchased credit for services with biotech companies with about 5k USD off my promised contractual salary. Got the "rewards" plus some delayed payments. It is not crystal clear from the numbers where is the last month of payment (I haven't had the guts to sieve that now).

After being paid I contacted my Consulate reporting the events, letters. Mainly to ensure some authority was aware in case of any political revenge (e.g. unfair accusation, arrest). I finally left without any events. I avoided physical contact with the PIs, who refrained from answering any further emails after I refused to purchase invoices. A few hours ago the Consulate notified the situation to the local Foreign Affairs Office, and emphasised it looks very serious.

This is where I stand. I hope something will be done to at least stop these schemes ongoing with other postdocs. I am moving to publish the story in the international press, and possibly file everything to the Ministry of Education right after. I thank everyone here for providing insights and suggestions. Keep an eye on the news.

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    Start looking elsewhere : and that means a different country... – Solar Mike Feb 26 '18 at 7:21
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    @SolarMike In fact when my visa expires I am leaving back to my home country. But this is not to say my experience has been much better around there: I just had no issues at getting paid. I am wondering whether I ought to just drop their debt behind when moving on, or whether there is some internal resource (Foreign's Interests Office or sth) I could mention or reach out for. – Scientist Feb 26 '18 at 7:30
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    Maybe embassy of your country can orient you better. For example they should be able to orient you on legal possibilities. – user88213 Feb 28 '18 at 6:50
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    @Scientist Going to embassy is big minus, China is communist country and asking embassy to do something is last resourt, your only option is ministry. I think I need to write answer. – SSimon Mar 1 '18 at 5:50
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    @yoyostein Yes, I have heard from several other colleagues about similar schemes here and elsewhere. My impression is that most local postdocs get scammed passively while convincing themselves that everything is correct or else pretending. Under the hopes they'll be rewarded later, or find something better, believing this is like that everywhere. – Scientist Apr 18 '18 at 14:23
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Invited by the OP to post my comment under another post here:

Courts in China are often unwilling to rule in favor of foreigners in economic dispute cases. Not to mention that Chinese law already provides inadequate protection for workers in this case. I am not a lawyer myself, so I do not feel qualified to talk about the legal details, but in general it is very hard for workers to get what they deserve when they end up in a wage dispute, and especially if you're foreign. (Source: a close family member has experience working as an attorney-at-law in many wage dispute cases, including a few involving foreigners).

China can be pretty unfriendly for foreigners living in the country, as there are a lot of limitations on them. I would not suggest avoiding the country, but do expect a lot of difficulties.


More:

To solve this problem, you do need to know some Chinese politics. In China, universities are placed under direct administration of either the Ministry of Education or the provincial Department of Education, and they have no administrative autonomy whatsoever (unsurprising, because there is no separation of power in the Chinese government system, even on paper).

So, a court might not solve your issue. The court, as another government agency, would be unlikely to rule against another government agency. Also, this is a case of economic dispute and you are a foreigner. If you really want to go to court, find an experienced lawyer. Note, however, that Chinese courts can forbid foreign citizens with unresolved civil litigation from leaving the country; if your bring the case to court, you might risk not being able to leave the country until the case is resolved.

You might have a better chance if you escalate the issue to a higher level governmental agency. The Ministry of Education 教育部 might be a good choice (they likely are your university's direct supervising agency), so is SAFEA 国家外国专家局. Do try to contact them.

If you think there's corruption involved, try the Communist Party's Central Commission for Discipline Inspection 中央纪律检查委员会 (aka 中纪委). The Ministry of Supervision (now the National Supervision Commission) is in fact just another name under which the CCDI operates, so no need to contact them individually. The CCDI is an extremely powerful agency, so they might be the most helpful to you (of course, that's if they do take your case seriously).

Do write a letter to the CCDI if you are confident that misuse of public funds is present. However, instead of writing to your university's president 校长, perhaps writing to your university's Party Secretary 党委书记 might be more helpful. Also, see if there's a Central Inspection Group 中央巡视组 inspecting your university. If there happens to be one, you might as well report to them directly.

Do consult a lawyer. Be sure to choose a lawyer with experience working with foreigners.

  • This is excellent advice, thanks much for your investment here. I will update here on where I stand. I left an official complaint with the Principal and "spent" the rest of the money they owed me as credit with local companies. I had the unofficial support of the local Consulate of my country in case any threats were made, and left the country. My plan was to splash the whole affair in the international news, and follow with an official complaint to MoE. However I hit a deadlock: reporters are apparently scared of publicly commenting on this since I did not take this to court first. – Scientist Jun 25 '18 at 17:01
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    @Scientist I don't think reporters will help you much in this case, especially if it's international news. But indeed appealing to party apparatus (likely there's a party discipline problem here) will be much more effective than lodging complaints with the government. Indeed, if you don't intend to take it to court, a lawyer might not help you too much, plus lawyers with experience working with foreigners are expensive indeed (I know how much they make! :-D). I would say try reporting this to more places definitely. Of course, cnsult your own country's MoFA too! – xuq01 Jun 25 '18 at 17:16
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    Regarding finding a lawyer: the law firm behind this blog gives an impression of great expertise and while their focus is on enterprises they may well be able to help find a suitable lawyer for your case. Don't expect any of this to come cheap or be worth the trouble. – mts Jun 30 '18 at 7:52
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    Communist Party's Central Commission for Discipline Inspection... Sounds scary. Like something from a Orwell novel... – fgysin Jul 3 '18 at 9:22
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    @fgysin Well, it basically is... – xuq01 Jul 3 '18 at 9:26
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+50

Your first stop should be: Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security 中华人民共和国人力资源和社会保障部 How you will contact and make a complaint without knowing of Chinese language, I am not sure. I would suggest you a lawyer, but the culture is not the same, so what is consider lawyer in West it is not considered as usual in China.

there is also Central Commission for Discipline Inspection. Also, there is Ministry of Supervision 中华人民共和国监察部 I mention them because the information you provide clearly indicates misuse of public funds.

if you dont know the Chinese language I recommend going for help to Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People's Republic of China. they should know English and they can advise you where and how to complain.

  • This looks good. Do you think I should first mention these names at the administration to see whether they fix the situation before I actually move with the official complaints? I heard from expat SSL teachers that usually mentioning SAFEA may resolve many salary issues with bad schools (but yeah: a crummy language school is different from a big institution). Also, please, could you also provide the official Chinese name for "Central Commission for Discipline Inspection" ? Thanks much! – Scientist Mar 1 '18 at 6:54
  • Sorry if you feel this is too personal or risky, but have you ever heard of such a situation before in China? How common is this? Was there official any precedent from which you took this protocol of reaction? – Scientist Mar 1 '18 at 7:04
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    @Scientist It is common, but not common for first Tier cities. You need to tell me what is the tier of city that your uni belongs – SSimon Mar 1 '18 at 7:11
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    This is a full-blown first tier. Also, please, could you also provide the official Chinese name for "Central Commission for Discipline Inspection" mentioned in your answer? Yes: I don't speak Chinese but finding someone to at least translate won't be too hard. I say it because from my experience they get scared quite easily, around here. – Scientist Mar 1 '18 at 7:16
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    @Scientist I apologize if you misunderstood me, yes this is common in China even in first tiers, however, it is much more easier to report and handle the issue in first tiers,bcs they are closely alligned to the party. – SSimon Apr 19 '18 at 8:25
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I wish to ask whether anyone here had a similar situation, and would know what could be done? Particularly in China?

I might add my feedback on this, comparing it to my experiences. I've been a postdoc at Nankai in Tianjin, and have worked here ever since. I love China!

Miscommunication is normal here: you plan your life and career based on the information they provide, only to find out what you envisaged is incorrect. If you're particularly concerned about money, China is probably not the place to be.

I signed a postdoctoral fellow contract for a 120k RMB salary per year, with a promise of an extra 60K RMB per year to be provided by the college.

I'm an associate professor with years of experience working in China, many Chinese co-authors, and a fellowship; I'm a native English speaker, I speak Chinese (sort of), and I have a Chinese green card. Regardless, this salary would be higher than my current salary. Very few postdocs (any?) in China will get such a high salary.

I needed a certain official document about which they claim they were unaware.

This happens a lot: rules and regulations change in China quite frequently, and officials don't update the websites (both the Chinese and English ones). It's normal to find out mid-way through an application that something else is required.

In reality, they never paid me that 1st month while dismissing it by saying "probably will fix that later".

I arrived in January, started getting paid in May, and they backdated it to March. During this time, I wrote papers which would probably impact me far more than a few months salary. I also get to live in China! China!!

I also didn't (and still don't) pay rent as the university covers my accommodation, and I barely pay bills.

Then I was told some unspecified large sum is retained to fund my expenses to any trips/conferences I might wish to attend. I was not clearly informed of when or even if I would get the withheld amount.

I've racked up some huge travel bills: 9 countries this year; 10 countries last year. The payment of flights, accommodation, and registration is usually done by the university, so I don't have to do much. That's quite a lot of life experiences!

...everyone tells me "not to worry".

I've learned not to worry. I just work hard, gain experience, and publish, and money sorts itself out.

Exit procedures included preparing lengthy reports which had not been requested before.

I was asked to write a report at the end of my postdoc too (something like 70+ pages); something like a "postdoc thesis". I copy/pasted my papers into it, put in a whole bunch of conference photos, etc. Nobody is ever going to read it.

They would pay me a "reward" for completing documents, plus one month of basic salary, and promised a large sum adding up to the final amount... in exchange for invoices.

I've never heard of this. Here, invoices are needed for reimbursement (e.g. for hotels, taxis, etc.), but never anything else.

They explicitly instructed me to buy invoices from companies they'd recommend by paying 10-15% of the declared value to "reimburse the rest of my salary". They insisted this is common procedure, offering help to "find invoices to exchange".

I've never heard of it. I'd probably refuse too.

They explain that what is declared on the contract as salary includes a significant amount which is to be spent with research only, and that invoices ensure the university can pay/reimburse.

That explains the extraordinarily large salary, and the mysterious invoices.

It sounds like your colleagues were trying to find a "workaround" ("buy invoices from companies they'd recommend") so you can claim the research-allocated funds.

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    My experience with "don't worry" agreements (not in China, but in Europe - but I am fairly sure that this is universal) is that they only work as long as there is nothing to worry about. When shit hits the fan these agreements are not worth the time spent on talking about them. By now I get an allergic reaction as soon as somebody tells me not to worry. – xLeitix Oct 1 '18 at 15:09
  • Hi , thanks for your feedback! In fact the whole situation is in the past by now. My conclusions when related to your answer below: (i) postdoc salaries in China have increased considerably, and annual 180-250k rmb are being offered now (if paid we don't know); (ii) on working free for months, I'd rather do it from home than abroad, especially in the life conditions offered; (iii) on the postdoc thesis I did the same as you; (iv) finally on the invoice scheme I now understand they wanted a share of the funds as they claimed over data, authorships, etc. Calling it salary was just a bait. – Scientist Oct 1 '18 at 17:04
  • As an example of a fairly high salary offer for candidates (alongside discussions of not being paid correctly): zhihu.com/question/52131526/answer/232792998 – Scientist Oct 23 '18 at 10:51
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    @Scientist - Is what happened to you common in reputable universities in China? – user74089 Mar 28 at 7:59
  • @user74089 Really hard to say because I don't have a wide experience around China which is a huge country. But I have heard that problems with salary pay are a local constant, and that an unbalanced relationship with supervisor is to be expected. – Scientist Mar 29 at 21:53

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