There is a great deal of talk at the moment about what China is becoming. With its advent on the world stage as a global powerhouse of economic change, the balance of cultural power will also eventually be recalibrated. As China overtakes Japan as the worlds second largest economy it is a good time to take stock of what this will mean for the future of Chinese language studies.
So it finally happened: China is now the second largest economy in the world. For an economics geek and China fetishist like me, this is the most interesting news that I have heard for a long time.
What will this mean for students? What will it mean for businesses?
There is no doubt that the greatest paradigm shift of our time will be China's ascension as a global super power - but being number two, in China's case, is not as impressive as it sounds. After all, the Chinese are four times as populous as the heavy weight champion of the league - the US.
What is impressive is China's potential. With an annualized growth rate of 10%, China doubles its output every eight years. How long this will continue is a matter of complicated debate, mainly focused on the degree that the rate of productivity gains can offset increasing wages. In other words - it depends on how long China will remain the "Factory of The World" and if its export led growth can continue. However, this debate is only regarding the time that it will take: China will eventually, and historically speaking, very soon, surpass the US in absolute terms even if its growth rates fall to less divine levels.
When China's average income becomes a fourth of that of US citizens, Beijing would be on par with Washington. This will happened within 20 years.
When China's average income is half, it will be more than twice as large. This will happen within our lifetime.
When the same, it will dwarf the US economy, which will then be less than a fourth of China's.
These figures, which are mind-blowing, describes a phenomenon that will change the world. I wrote that this ascension would be the greatest paradigm shift of our time. I stand by that. Right now the English language rule be because the English speaking world rules. Gordon Brown recently stated that soon there would be more people speaking English in China than in the West. There are 300 million Chinese studying English. The demand for Chinese people speaking English will be filled in 15 to 20 years.
Western students don't care about Chinese, if seen in this context: around 1 million people are studying Chinese as a second language globally; about half of them take this vocation serious enough to reach fluency. When the wave starts to turn, which it will within 15 years, and every large company will need a major contact point in China, just as literally every company has one in the US and Europe today, those westerners that can stand with one foot in the east and one foot in the west will be those that capitalize on the changes.
So: Why Study Chinese?
The main bulk of the benefit does not lie in what China is today, but in what it will become in a very near future.
Furthermore, the language component here is just a small piece of the puzzle. There is an enormous cultural divide between Chinese and Western ideas when it comes to everything: life, family, contracts, work ethic etc. If we look at the reality of the situation, knowing Chinese will not be enough. Because although trade is international, business is local: right now most business, just as with English, is done on Western terms, but this has already started changing. There will first be a long period of equality between these opposing world views, where a serious understanding of both vantage point will be essential, and perhaps, on a distant horizon, a Chinese advantage. As cash is king, and China gets rich, to understand the Chinese mind will be as important as understanding the product you represent.
So: Why Study Chinese (in China)?
Not only is it much easier to study Chinese in China than studying it else where, but the added kicker of cultural insight will be a defining character of many new top jobs that will emerge as China starts sharing the crown of economic might with its last rival for the heavy weight title, the US.