The pandemic has made the rise of China much more visible in the UK. Those responsible for the relationship between the UK and China have come under intense public scrutiny. National newspapers now run stories about China as a matter of routine. This change has resulted in the politicisation of debate about the UK’s ‘China policy.’ In spite of important disagreements, many across business, academia and politics concur on one thing at least: the UK lacks knowledge about China. In spite of the seeming inevitability of China becoming a world power, staggeringly little has been done to address this. Most public figures with a professional interest in China have raised this lack of knowledge at some point in the past few years, to little effect. A recent paper on the role of China in UK higher education argued that “the current single greatest failure of UK policy towards China is arguably to fail to admit that we lack basic levels of China, and Asia, literacy.” At the root of this failure is the dearth of Chinese language skills amongst UK citizens. This is a problem. If left unsolved, then the risks posed by China’s rise will be made more extreme. Such risks cannot be confronted without a deeper understanding of China. Conversely, the opportunities presented by China’s rise cannot be seized effectively without adequate language skills.
The UK is on the cusp of emerging from the pandemic and more interested in China than ever. Now is obviously the time for a ‘Chinese language revolution’; for a state-sponsored initiative that brings together government, business, civil society, the British Chinese community and academia to promote and subsidise the learning of Chinese on a truly ambitious scale, empowering the UK better to mitigate the risks and seize the opportunities of China’s rise.