Whilst Britain agonises over 200km of new high speed rail track to be placed through the country, over in China it is building an estimated twenty four new cities each year, and with expanding military budgets, a Pentagon report estimates that China will have a modern military capable of sustained high-intensity combat as early as the end of this decade. In addition, the Chinese Government is pushing hard in an attempt to make the Renminbi the global reserve currency.
Some commentators and economists predict the next hundred years as belonging to China and as such our own economic future is tied to our ability to fully participate in the opportunities this presents. The full extent of engagement will depend on a huge and complex set of objectives. However one way of ensuring we harness the opportunities posed by China is through our education system.
At the moment however, Britain’s education policy seems to be slow to wake up to these new opportunities. With little place on the curriculum for studies relating to China, Britain might be missing a trick. Making Mandarin compulsory, for example, would be a good start to an educational system that is geared more towards understanding China.
The British Council places Mandarin in the top five most important languages for the UK’s prosperity, security and influence in future years; yet only one per cent of the UK’s adult population speaks conversational Mandarin, presumably many of these are accounted for by British citizens with Chinese heritage.
For many in the UK, China remains an alien world with strange customs, different values, unusual tastes in food, and of course a baffling alphabet and wildly different language. Understanding one another’s languages not only breaks down communications barriers, but also breaks down cultural ones. Ensuring a heightened level of understanding between peoples is vital for Britain’s long term relationship with China; it is through this understanding that British people, and crucially its businesses, can forge closer ties with Chinese companies, and boost both our attractiveness as a destination for inward investment and create new export opportunities.
Britain is already behind our competitors. France welcomes nearly eight times as many high-spending Chinese visitors as the UK. France and Germany are opening a joint visa office in Beijing to simplify the application process, and both countries export substantially more than the UK does.
A transformation in our economic relations with China will not happen overnight, though the Government has taken some steps to encourage UK-China links – following a visit last year to China, David Cameron promised to double the number of Chinese language assistants in the UK by 2016, forging greater links between schools and send sixty headteachers to China in the coming year. In addition, there is a simplified visa application process for Chinese visitors to the UK, and the Prime Minister also acknowledged the need to look beyond the current focus on teaching European languages such as German and French in our schools.
This is a positive start but the new emerging structure of the global economy will wait for no country. When UK children born today leave school, they are likely to belong to a world in which the Chinese economy sits firmly at the top of the global economic table.
The world economy is rebalancing away from the West and our future prosperity will in part depend on ensuring that the next generation are able to take full advantage of the changing landscape. Making mandarin compulsory in schools is one step towards enhancing British influence and improving our global reach.
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January 21, 2021