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Chinese Education Startup Puts Western Teachers on Notice — Wall Street Journal

March 21st, 2019 No comments

A Chinese education company backed by U.S. investors including Kobe Bryant is cracking down on how its Western teachers cover politically fraught topics.

VIPKid, one of China’s most valuable online education startups, has put hundreds of its mostly American teachers on notice for using certain maps in their classes with Chinese students, and has severed two teachers’ contracts for discussing Taiwan and Tiananmen Square in ways at odds with Chinese government preferences, people familiar with the company say. Since last fall, teachers’ contracts state that discussing “politically contentious” topics could be cause for dismissal, according to one reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.

The moves highlight the balance a Chinese company must strike in fulfilling global aspirations while toeing Beijing’s line. Five-year-old VIPKid is currently in talks to raise as much as $500 million in new funding from U.S. and other investors that could value the company at roughly $6 billion, people familiar with the fundraising said.

 “A company must keep good relations with the government and ideology,” said Peter Fuhrman, chief executive of investment firm China First Capital . “But that can cause friction when you’re also courting foreign investors, expanding business overseas and employing a large American workforce.”

Beijing-based VIPKid says it has more than 60,000 teachers in the U.S. and Canada who teach English to more than 500,000 children ages 4 through 15, who live mostly in China. Teachers work as independent contractors and can earn between $14 and $22 an hour. They must have a bachelor’s degree, at least one year of teaching experience and eligibility to work in the U.S. or Canada.

Curricula are provided, and teachers give English-language instruction, sometimes using geography or historical figures. VIPKid’s approach is consistent with maps and materials in the Chinese education curriculum, which calls Taiwan a part of China. Textbooks don’t mention the military’s suppression of the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy demonstrators in 1989, and discussion of it is forbidden.

A spokesman said VIPKid has “an elevated level of responsibility to protect the safety and emotional development of the young children on our platform.” The company expects teachers to understand cultural expectations, he said, adding it had to “make a difficult decision” to terminate the contracts of “an exceptionally small number of teachers” who “decided to ignore the needs of their students” and “the preference of their parents.”

Western companies including Gap Inc. and hotel giant Marriott International Inc. have been forced to apologize in the past for online communications, websites or merchandise that angered Beijing or Chinese consumers on issues including Taiwan and Tibet.

Chinese education technology attracted $5.3 billion in investment last year, double the amount a year earlier, according to Dow Jones VentureSource data. VIPKid’s investors include U.S. hedge-fund firm Coatue Management LLC, venture-capital firm Sequoia Capital, Chinese social giant Tencent Holdings Ltd. and a venture fund co-launched by retired NBA star Kobe Bryant.

The company’s actions have rankled some teachers. Typically, these instructors have displayed maps of the world, including China, that they found on their own. Starting last fall, hundreds began receiving emails or calls from VIPKid stating their maps weren’t aligned with Chinese education standards, people familiar with the matter said. Teachers who refuse to adhere to the map standards could have their contracts terminated, after conversations with VIPKid. Map-related dismissals haven’t happened, said a person familiar with the company.

Will Rodgers, a 26-year-old American teacher based in Thailand, said he discussed Tiananmen Square twice during VIPKid lessons about famous Chinese landmarks. First, he told a 12-year-old student “the Chinese government jailed and killed many people just for protesting.” He then showed a 15-year-old student photos and video footage of the protest, and his contract was terminated. Mr. Rodgers said he doesn’t agree with VIPKid’s stance, but doesn’t blame the company for ending his contract.

Another American teacher’s contract was terminated earlier this year after he told students that Taiwan was a separate country, according to people familiar with his case. A third teacher received a call from VIPKid after telling a student that Tibet, an autonomous region in China with a history of separatist activity, is a country, during a lesson on China’s neighbors, according to a person familiar with the matter. He was told on the call he should refer to Tibet as part of China.

People familiar with VIPKid say it monitors classes for missteps over political content. Another person familiar with the matter said the company uses artificial intelligence to determine material students find engaging and to protect them from inappropriate behavior.

Some teachers and VIPKid investors say that education from foreign teachers, even if it is screened, can benefit students because they get exposed to other cultures. Rob Hutter, a founder and managing partner of Learn Capital, an early investor in VIPKid, said the company is trying to take a common-sense approach by teaching uncontroversial content.

“No matter what nation you’re teaching in, there are going to be things that we need to be thoughtful about,” he said. “Even in American classrooms, there are things you cannot discuss.”

“No matter what nation you’re teaching in, there are going to be things that we need to be thoughtful about,” he said. “Even in American classrooms, there are things you cannot discuss.”

https://www.wsj.com/articles/chinese-education-startup-puts-western-teachers-on-notice-11553160602?mod=hp_lista_pos3

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Chinese Private Equity Funding Hit By Sharp Downturn — Financial Times

March 15th, 2019 No comments

Fundraising by renminbi-denominated private equity groups in China plummeted 86 per cent last year, squeezed by a tighter availability of credit and a slower initial public offering market.

The fall — revealed in a new report published on Friday — underlines how the Chinese private equity market has gone into reverse from the boom times of a few of years ago, when scores of new funds were launched and the country’s technology companies attracted sky-high valuations.

Hundreds of small, inexperienced Chinese private equity funds that rushed into investments in technology and new economy companies have begun to suffer from a sharp contraction in fundraising and tougher environment for exiting investments.

Private equity houses raised about $13bn in renminbi-denominated funds in 2018, down about 86 per cent from the $93bn raised the year before, according to data compiled by the consultants Bain & Co.

At the same time, small Chinese private equity groups struggled to cash in on their investments in 2018. Sales and initial public offerings worth less than $100m fell by about 64 per cent last year compared to a five-year average.

“The level of optimism and fervour for investing in the tech sector foreshadowed what we are seeing now,” said Usman Akhtar, a partner at Bain & Co, referring to how many small private equity houses are struggling to exit from investments at expected prices. “It’s the start of this and it may take a few years to pan out.”

The tightening of credit in China is a broad trend with an impact far beyond private equity. Banks, trusts and other sources of capital have been squeezed during China’s attempt to slow the growth of debt.

So-called shadow banking has been an important source of funds for small private equity groups. Without these channels to fresh cash, many of the imperilled funds are simply shutting down, raising doubts over whether investors will be paid.

China’s woes are mirrored across Asia where large private equity is sucking up most of the available capital while also finding means to exit their investments, Mr Akhtar said. Hong Kong-based PAG, which is run by former TPG and JPMorgan executive Shan Weijian, raised a $6bn fund in November, following a more than $9bn fund raised by Hillhouse, the Beijing and Hong Kong-based group.

Large exits of more than $500m clearly diverged from smaller deals in 2018 by rising just over a quarter on the year before.

Global demand for Chinese technology IPOs started 2018 with a bang but quickly showed signs of fizzling out, leading to a bottleneck of private equity seeking to exit their investments.

Over the past year several large, private equity-backed groups have been forced to scale back their IPOs or delay them indefinitely.

Tencent Music, which is partly owned by private equity, was last year targeting a $4bn float but ended up raising only $1.1bn after several delays.

“The reality is that all PE and VC investing in China has been an unhedged bet that the IPO process in China would liberalise and institutional investors in US and Hong Kong would show consistent, strong interest in Chinese IPOs. Neither is true,” said Peter Fuhrman, chairman of China First Capital, a Shenzhen-based investment bank.

https://www.ft.com/content/c0cf8c6e-4634-11e9-a965-23d669740bfb

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