China Internship Scams: What's The Deal?

If you Google "china internships", one of the first auto-suggested searches is "china internship scam". If you perform that search you'll see a number of results for all sorts of horror stories that explain internships in China gone wrong. You'll read horror stories of people promised their "dream internship" only to end up working in an internship they hate. 

You might even find this story, about a group of interns who ended up working as mascots at an amusement park in Guangzhou.

Sure, I understand that some unscrupulous companies in the space don't deliver on their unrealistic promises ("you'll DEFINITELY get a full-time job offer following your one month internship"), and while that is undoubtedly dodgy, I don't know that it qualifies as a scam. There has to be something else going on here.

So why is "china internship scam" searched in Google in a high enough volume to be an auto-predicted term? 

Following are the reasons I believe why this is the case...


Part of this is simply the fact that the expat blogosphere in China can be extremely negative. Just read the comments section of a Shanghaiist article to see what I mean.

If you spend time reading comments from salty China expats (don't do it!), you'll see a very negative, one dimensional view of China being put forth.

The sometimes harsh realities of China, like food safety and corruption, are further magnified by a contingent of angry commenters in various comments section and bulletin board discussions.

The Frequency of Scams in China

However, the angry expat is at least partially right when he or she warns you that China can be a perilous environment.

The reality is that there are plenty of foreigners and Chinese alike who have fallen victim to a wide variety of scams.

You can find tourists who have fallen victim to Shanghai's tea scam, you can find ESL teachers who have been cheated out of pay, and businessmen whose majority partners have forever absconded with their startup capital.

There is to this day a lack of transparency in business dealings in China that creates such an environment, and while such horror stories aren't the majority, they do happen, and when they do, they attract an outsized amount of attention on the internet.

People don't talk about the 99,000 planes that have landed safely, only about the one that crashed. 

The nature of fee-based internships

Some people simply disagree with the model of paying for an internship. 

"Pay to work?" They'll say. "Are you crazy?"

I say it all the time- this model isn't the right fit for everybody. It's not perfect, but it's a model I believe in, though I know I'll never convince the disbelievers.

Don't get me wrong, I would LOVE to have companies pay for the interns they bring on board. But this is simply not a reality for many situations.

For example, we sometimes place people in one month internships. Now, for a one month internship, think of the costs that the company incurs in bringing on that intern. They need to train their new hire on all sorts of process and protocol, and just as the intern is getting past the steepest part of their learning curve, they are gone. And depending on how efficient the company is, there is a good chance that they have actually lost money on that hire. 

Not everybody understands or is interested in understanding this, and (wrongly) consider fee-based internships to be by definition a scam.

Bad Salespeople

Good salespeople DO NOT want to bring everybody on as a customer. They have a distinct understanding of who their target customer is, and their goal in a sales call should firstly be to disqualify any non-ideal prospects. 

If you aren't going to be happy with my service, then I don't want to bring you on as a customer. Period. I'll tell you that upfront, because eventually the truth is going to come out and my life is going to be a lot harder if I have made promises I cant keep.

The problem is that many people handling intake for these internship programs are recent graduates without sales experience, and many are inherent people pleasers who used to telling people only what they want to hear. 

This can cause problems, when the over-eager entry-level sales professional (maybe just fresh off a internship themselves) is willing to tell their prospects whatever it takes for them to close the deal.

This problem can also arise when a company has miscalibrated sales incentives for its employees. 

For example, if a salesperson is paid a commission every time they bring on a client, they are incentivized to bring on as many clients as possible. If a staggered sales structure was used to pay commission instead, with 50% coming at signup and 50% following that client's successful completion of an internship, all of a sudden the incentive switches: it is no longer about just making the initial sale, but about making making sure that their client has an amazing experience from beginning to end. 

Of course, a delightful end-to-end experience should always be the goal, but the reality is that incentives contribute to work for or against this happening.

Unrealistic Expectations

Sometimes a salesperson sets unrealistic expectations, but sometimes a prospective intern also comes with a set of unrealistic and unmanageable expectations.

A good sales process should filter out candidates like this, but no system is perfect and sometimes a bad egg makes it through.

The Challenge of Scale

This is not to excuse those internship companies who don't delight their customers, but internship placements are an inherently difficult service to scale. We see this again and again with the so-called "intern mills" in the space who survive on sheer volume of internships, not their quality.

The truth is that there is a limited inventory of good internships in China. Or anywhere. And once a company exhausts this inventory by filling up all of their good internships, they are forced to compromise on quality.

This is one reason that we at SmartIntern have decided not to become a volume-based business. We see great growth potential by offering new products and services outside of just internships, and intend to grow that way, not by placing thousands of interns in low to average quality internships in China.

Dodgy Internship Companies

The sad truth is that there are some companies in this space who are simply dodgy. I wish it weren't the case but unfortunately it is.

When I first started SmartIntern, a disgruntled former employee from a competing agency (the largest in the space in fact) emailed me and offered to sell me proprietary information stolen from that company. While such information would undoubtedly be valuable to me, buying it would be illegal and more importantly unethical. I declined.

I know of other companies in the space that have engaged in campaigns to publicly smear competitors. 

And of course, some internship companies have probably flat-out scammed their customers, though I think this is probably less common than one might think. I really don't think this practice is widespread and actually believe it will continue to decrease as the internet contributes to greater transparency. 

When I make purchases online, here are a few things I look for to get a better sense of the company I am buying from:


Look at a company's testimonials. Do they have testimonials from real people? Fake testimonials stand out in a few ways, notably by the overuse of stock photos. If you see testimonials from this girl, run!


How do you know that a testimonial is real? Well, you can always email the internship company and ask for links to LinkedIn profile urls from past interns and/or to be introduced via email to a past satisfied client. Every company should be willing to do this.

Real people behind the brand

This is a personal pet peeve of mine- I HATE it when people try to hide behind a website. Check to see if a service provider's website has an "about us" or "team" page. If they don't it isn't necessarily a red flag but I would look deeper to try to see who runs the site. Do they have a LinkedIn profile? Does that profile have recommendations? 

This is not to say that everybody with a LinkedIn profile and some recommendations is automatically an upstanding citizen, but it's a start.

If you can't find the person who runs a website, that might be an intentional decision they made for not-so-good reasons.

Payment Processing

It's 2015, and if somebody is asking you for a wire transfer, you should run.

We use PayPal at SmartIntern, and that is because it is good for both us and for you. If you ever feel that you have not received what you have paid for, you can lodge a payment dispute with PayPal, and they'll refund your money.

I hope that helps give you a clearer, more nuanced picture of the internship placement industry in China. There are problems and some companies focus more on volume than quality, but it's hardly rife with scams.

As always, we recommend any feedback or questions sent to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


About the Author
Author: Brandon

Hi, I'm Brandon! I'm SmartIntern's co-founder and a native of California. I'm interested in all things tech, emerging markets, and writing. When I'm not working on SmartIntern, I like to skateboard through the streets of Shanghai and uncover the city's best hole-in-the-wall noodle joints.

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