English Hustle

The rise and fall of the Chinese English tutoring industry through the eyes of four online teachers
Year Released
Film Length(s)
32 mins
Closed captioning available
Remote video URL


English Hustle explores the complexities of the multibillion dollar English online tutoring industry through personal stories with insights from academic experts on Chinese education, history, and foreign affairs. The film explores the power of cultural connections highlighting the challenging gig work the teachers endured during a financial and political upheaval.

Featured review

English Hustle is a fascinating look at the way the aspiration to learn English in China created an industry supercharged by the internet, and how that industry was upended by changing political winds in China. When policy pronouncements radiate out from Beijing, they're meant to reflect a new Chinese self-confidence. English Hustle shows how the ripples from the Politburo are felt in Chinese homes, and by an army of workers across the globe. If you're interested in the impact of the internet on learning, the networking of the world, and the rise of China, watch English Hustle.
Ray Suarez
Journalist and Author


In 2020, there were over 100,000 Americans and at least 20,000 Filipinos teaching English to millions of Chinese students online. With billions of dollars in investment, the English as a Foreign Language (EFL) industry was the largest financial sector in the ed tech space. Then, in 2021, with US-China tensions rising, the industry collapsed overnight with the announcement of a new policy -- the Double Reduction Policy -- restricting for-profit education in China. English Hustle follows teachers in the USA, Thailand and the Philippines living through this rollercoaster, with insights from experts on Chinese education, history, and foreign affairs.


Charles Abelmann captures on screen the intimate online bonds forged between English-language teachers and their students in China. Heartwarming and heartbreaking, English Hustle narrates how these virtual classrooms dissolve when mainland China changes its policies to address a declining birthrate and an increasingly bitter trade war with the United States that calls into question the drive to learn English. Following teachers based in the US, Philippines, Malaysia and Thailand, the documentary explores the transnational gig economy and the geopolitics of online educational labor. It serves as an essential resource for everyone interested in how changing Chinese policies impact our networked world.
Gina Marchetti
Chair of the Department of Humanities and Media Studies at Pratt Institute and author of "Citing China: Politics, Postmodernism, and World Cinema" (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2018)
This fascinating documentary explores the development of the 100-billion-dollar Chinese tutoring industry and its impact on the lives of ordinary citizens not only in China but across the English-speaking world as well. English Hustle brilliantly shows how the changing priorities of the Chinese government, from internationalism to nationalism, served to construct and then burst an international tutoring bubble with English as its primary commodity. The firm is important for teachers and parents alike who may still think of tutoring as a simple, benign exchange between an adult who wants to teach and a child who wants to learn. English Hustle shows the danger of uncritically embracing government-sponsored educational aims.
Walter Feinberg
Charles Hardie Professor, Emeritus, Educational Policy, University of Illinois Champaign/Urbana
English Hustle is an important chapter in the story of China's engagement with the world. Two-hundred thousand foreign English language teachers and millions of Chinese students were building an understanding of each others cultures as they studied together. The relationships, along with ambitions on both sides, were shattered by an abrupt change of education policy. English Hustle tells us the personal stories behind some of the most contentious debates in cross-border education.
Christopher Thomas
Director of Partnerships, Yidan Prize Foundation

Awards and Screenings

Director Commentary

Because of my training as an educational researcher and my previous work in China, I was curious when I discovered the hundreds of teachers online sharing content about teaching students in China online and wanting to help others navigate how to get hired. I began to watch these videos to understand the industry and to see how the teaching of English became a window to cultural learning and connection as teachers and students would meet in some cases for hundreds of classes over months or years. I concentrated on understanding the scale, scope and impact of the industry. I was puzzled as to how such a huge industry existed with almost no government regulation or oversight by Chinese authorities. The more I learned the more I realized the scope and complexity of a web of relationships and different interests at times in conflict with one another. As an educator, I wanted to create a documentary to let viewers see the work of these teachers and how it impacted them and their students toward promoting greater global understanding. With the arrival of new policies the story changes. I wanted to give attention to this historical moment where the largest part of the global Ed Tech business came to a rapid halt.

I began my research and filming work over a year before the Chinese government issued strict new policies in July 2020 regulating the industry and restricting the wide access to English instruction. I found characters who could tell the story of the industry as I researched the firms, their founders, their investors to understand what was being sold to parents. How could such a multi billion dollar industry have almost no regulations allowing millions of students direct access to their teachers? I wondered what would would happen and gained access to four subjects to follow.

I found local cinematographers in Bangkok and Davao where my subjects lived so we could learn together and share global perspectives. I relied on the talents of Ben Kolac and his team from Chicago at Truth and Documentary as partners. The four teachers we followed allowed our team to enter their homes, watch them work and allow us time with family members as they all coped with the news and fallout of a collapsing industry. I entered these homes directing the film crews and talking with our subjects all over Zoom, WeChat and Whatsapp only after having many conversations with each. I formed a relationship with the subjects using video platforms just as the subjects formed relations with their students.

With a changing story due to the dramatic shutdown, I engaged with colleagues to help frame the changing story unfolding for me and the subjects of the film. Dali Yang, a political scientist from the University of Chicago and Yong Zhou from the University of Kansas and Melboune both have deep knowledge about the historical, political and educational context. Both grew up in China in a time where they had access to English study that helped their later success. They bring a personal and academic perspective to the film. The third expert -- Ted Fishman -- featured is an economic journalist with a career interest in China and author of China Inc., How the Rise of the Next Superpower Challenges America and the World. I hoped some of the Chinese founders and their funders would agree to be filmed but the sensitivity of the topic meant I rely on public record secondary interviews and news clips.

Features and Languages

Film Features

  • Closed Captioning
  • Subtitles

Film/Audio Languages

  • English

Subtitle/Caption Languages

  • Chinese

Promotional Material

Promotional Stills

Resources for Educators

Opens in new window