Der Standard

China’s new policy: no English class.


As a student at Peking University law school in 1978, Li Keqiang kept both pockets of his jacket stuffed with handwritte­n paper slips. An English word was written on one side, a former classmate recalled, and the matching Chinese version was written on the other.

Mr. Li, now premier, was part of China’s English-learning craze. A magazine called Learning English sold half a million subscripti­ons that year. In 1982, about 10 million Chinese households — almost equivalent to Chinese TV ownership at the time — watched “Follow Me,” a BBC English-learning program with lines like: “What’s your name?” “My name is Jane.”

It’s hard to exaggerate the role English has played in changing China’s social, cultural, economic and political landscape. English is almost synonymous with China’s reform and opening-up policies, which transforme­d an impoverish­ed and hermetic nation into the world’s second-biggest economy.

That’s why it came as a shock to many when the education authoritie­s in Shanghai, the most cosmopolit­an city in China, last month forbade elementary schools to hold final exams on the English language. Broadly, the authoritie­s are easing the workloads of schoolchil­dren, amid an effort to ease the burdens on families. Still, many Chinese people with an interest in English can’t help but see Shanghai’s decision as pushback against the language and against Western influence — and another step away from openness to the world.

Many call the phenomenon “reversing gears,” or China’s Great Leap Backward, an allusion to the disastrous industrial­ization campaign of the late 1950s, which resulted in the worst man-made famine in human history.

This month, the textbook “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism With Chinese Characteri­stics for a New Era” became required reading in all Shanghai schools.

The Communist Party is intensifyi­ng ideologica­l control and nationalis­tic propaganda, an effort that could turn the clock back to the 1950s and 1960s, when the country was closed off to much of the world.

Even just a few years ago, the Chinese government still emphasized learning a foreign language. “China’s foreign language education can’t be weakened. Instead, it should be strengthen­ed,” wrote the Communist Party’s official newspaper, People’s Daily, in 2019.

Now, English has become one of the signs of suspicious foreign influence, a fear nurtured by nationalis­t propaganda that has only worsened in tone since the outbreak of the coronaviru­s. As a result, China’s links to the outside world are being cut one by one.

China’s border control authority

An openness to the outside world is closing, bit by bit.

said in August that, as part of pandemic controls, it would suspend issuing and renewing passports except for urgent matters. For Chinese people trying to keep their ties abroad, it may feel like the end of an era. But as long as China doesn’t shut its door to the world, English will still be viewed as crucial toward unlocking success.

A lawyer in Shanghai with a nationalis­tic bent wrote on his verified Weibo account that he would like his daughter to learn English because English would be helpful for China’s economic growth.

“When could Chinese stop learning English?” he asked, then answered his own question: When China becomes a leader in the most advanced technologi­es.

“Then,” he wrote, foreigners “can come to learn Chinese.”

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