Letter from Beijing: The backlash against English

Why is the Chinese government discouraging learning our language?
June 18, 2014

“Stopping English lessons is the same as building the Great Fire Wall for our internet… It’s a step backward, motivated by political conservatism.” © Rex Pe

In April, I started a job teaching English to two Chinese employees at the Beijing branch of a multinational company. I imagined my students would be recent graduates, around my age, and eager to learn how to actually speak the language they have spent their life studying. It turned out, however, that Ken and Margaret are both in their 40s, hold senior positions at the company, and speak confident English, if slightly accented.

With a firm handshake, Ken, a new hire at the firm, told me he wanted to improve his English pronunciation so that his European colleagues would not “mistaken me as a junior-level employee.” Margaret explained that before “selling my company to international clients, I would like to sell myself.” Both Ken and Margaret stay in the office after 10pm on weekdays to take lessons with me.

Although western culture is still viewed with some suspicion, learning English has long been a national obsession. In wealthy middle-class families, toddlers who have only just begun to babble in Chinese are soon sat down in front of Disney movies and enrolled in bilingual kindergartens. At school, English is taught from a young age and is a required subject on the university entrance exam. Diligent learners like Margaret and Ken continue to pursue English long after school, hoping it will give them an edge in the workplace.

Recently, however, a backlash against English learning has developed. Late last year, education authorities in Beijing said they would downgrade the weight of English in the college admissions process, with the purpose of “reducing academic pressure for high school students.” The announcement was met with many cheers online: some, championing the value of traditional Chinese culture, believe subjects such as classical Chinese and calligraphy deserve more attention than English. Others argue that English proves useful for only a small fraction of Chinese students after university, too few to justify its mandatory status.

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A few saw it differently. Some commentators wondered if the proposal reveals the insecurity of the Communist Party, at a time when the country’s elite are heading overseas en masse and intellectuals are relying on foreign media sites to access unfiltered news. “Are you afraid that we will all flee to the US after we master English?” one suggested. “It is another way of keeping us stupid and uninformed,” another said. “It’s the same as building the Great Fire Wall for our internet… It’s a step backward, motivated by political conservatism.”

Most parents and educators doubt the policy will dampen people’s enthusiasm towards English in the long run. The tangible benefits that proficiency in English can bring—admission to western universities and jobs in multinational firms—are strong incentives, as is the popularity of western pop culture. But there are subtler advantages, too. Younger generations are striving to refine their increasingly cosmopolitan image, and English serves as a symbol for this ambition as well as a tool to realise it. Nothing better announces cultural cachet than the ability to quote from Downton Abbey with a flawless British accent or to order from an English menu at an upmarket Shanghai restaurant.

Last winter, when I was reorganising my parents’ bookshelf, two books with English titles caught my eye: Heart of Darkness, and a collection of short stories by Virginia Woolf. Neither of my parents speaks English. “Where are they from?” I asked. Mum smiled. They belonged to her university roommate, an exchange student from America. She left them behind when she moved back, and Dad saw them when he came to pick Mum up on a date. “He had been teaching himself ABC for a few weeks, but insisted on taking these books. He said reading them would be a piece of cake,” Mum said. “He did succeed in impressing me,” she laughed and glanced around, before adding: “But these books still look new, don’t they?”