Language education key to understanding China - SOAS China Institute

//Language education key to understanding China

Language education key to understanding China

The British Council in Hong Kong. – Photo credit: Tseuwonn Rekauidscoo (Wikimedia Commons)

By Catherine West | 22 June 2023

When I studied at SOAS, I had very little idea that years later, China would be at the centrepiece of my working life. But in part, it was my studies which gave me the solid grounding to understand the complexities and challenges – as well as the opportunities – of the UK/China relationship in my role as shadow Asia Minister.


Sadly, that understanding of China – a vast, diverse, rich, and historic country boasting a proud history – in the UK is all too often lacking. Despite China now being the second largest economic power on the planet and home to the world’s largest population, there is little to no urgency or attention given to Mandarin teaching in the UK – either in educational institutions, or at the heart of government. As a linguist, I know the power of languages and I firmly believe that understanding a language is key to understanding a people, unlocking greater respect and understanding of the countries where that language is spoken, and that is particularly the case with Chinese languages.


While we in the UK too often lack a knowledge of China – particularly its languages – the reverse is not the case. For many years British Council has been doing admirable, but often overlooked, work in furthering the study of the English language and knowledge and appreciation of Britain in China itself. By doing so, it is furthering our powerful soft power and their work is a credit to the UK, as is the BBC World Service, pushing against the pervasive censorship in mainland China and the encroaching erosion of civil liberties in Hong Kong.


Similarly, our higher education sector here in the UK is arguably second to none. Not only do British Universities regularly turn out future world leaders – with a staggering 55 world leaders in 2022 educated here, behind only the United States – every year tens of thousands of Chinese students leave home and fly half way around the world to begin their studies across the UK, enriching our cultural environment in regional towns and cities, providing a real economic boost to their local areas, but also gaining an insight in to British academic freedoms and our way of life.


While there are growing concerns about the dependence on this bloc of students – and indeed there are serious questions about research ethics and the appropriateness of some research collaboration in sensitive issues – we should be proud that the UK is a destination of choice for thousands of young Chinese men and women, and it is very possible that a new generation of Chinese leaders have gained their education here in the UK. We should be very proud of that as a nation, and higher education is the crowning glory of our soft power.


But this shouldn’t be a one-way street and it is abundantly clear that there should be a renewed focus on upskilling both the general population, through our education system, and in the halls of power here in Whitehall in furthering our understanding of China and the Chinese languages.


Doing so makes good economic, political, and diplomatic sense – both for the UK and for China. Practically every analyst and foreign policy expert agree that relations with China will be one of the dominant issues of the next century, with thorny issues rising from their claims in the South China, to their human rights record, and the urgent need to cooperate on mutually beneficial issues – notably climate change – certain to be a regular feature of discussion for those of us in foreign policy.


Our ability to get to grips with these challenges will only be helped by increasing our literacy when it comes to China, and indeed a further mutual understanding of our two countries, our cultures, and our way of life will avoid future misunderstanding and lower tensions when dealing with these important questions. We have the building blocks to be able to do so, with the work of the British Council, the new Turing Scheme, and the many bilateral schemes we have at British Universities which already exist in sending British students to China to have an in-depth immersion in China, deepening our understanding of the country, its languages, and its culture through shared learning and human experiences.


We can have better chance of addressing our differences and our opportunities if we understand one another, and I sincerely hope that the future generation of leaders are as steeped in their understanding of China as they need to be.

Catherine West is Shadow Foreign Minister (Asia and the Pacific) and the labour MP for Hornsey & Wood Green. She studied at SOAS where she achieved a Masters in Chinese Studies in 2004. She was Shadow Foreign Minister from October 2015 – June 2017 with responsibility for the Americas, Asia-Pacific, Oceania and the Overseas Territories. She also served as a member of the Parliamentary Select Committee on International Trade, the joint Committee on Arms Export Controls (September 2017 – March 2019) and member of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee (March-November 2019).


The views expressed on this blog are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily those of the SOAS China Institute.