A nurse shows children how to brush their teeth
A nurse shows children how to brush their teeth ©

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During the Second World War the British Council was unable to conduct many operations in East Asia, the site of some of the biggest conflicts.  

After the declaration of peace, our operations in the region expanded, initially in British dependencies such as Australia, Burma and Hong Kong. 

In the 1950s, a government review recommended expansion of English language teaching activities in the region. This prompted us to open offices in Thailand and Japan, and by the end of decade we expanded further, opening offices in Vietnam and Cambodia.

Funding changes and political circumstances meant that we have operated in varied circumstances in East Asia; nevertheless we have consistently promoted the teaching and learning of English, fostered collaboration in education and developed cultural exchanges. 

English Language

As it is today, English was a widely-spoken second language across East Asia when we began work there. There was a large market for English Language teaching in many states, but in others, the use of English was more contentious. 

In Indonesia - a former Dutch colony - the Ministry of Education was keen to make English the second language. In contrast, in Malaysia – a former British colony – English was removed from the educational system for a time. This meant we became one of the only sources of English education in the country.

In general, rather than teaching English directly, we provided educational advice and assistance to Ministries of Education and educational institutions. Our expertise in this field was greatly valued.

Activities included recruitment of English language teachers, arranging language courses for government employees, and teacher training. In the 1970s we began broadcasting educational TV programmes, which were particularly popular in East Asia. These were created in collaboration with the BBC, and included ‘Slim John’ and ‘Walter and Connie’.

In markets where did provide English classes to the public, these proved very popular. In Thailand, for example, we were teaching over 4000 students a year by 1980.

Across East Asia we operated alongside US educational agencies, which had a strong presence in the region and considerable funding. They provided direct English teaching to a greater extent than we were able to do. In some states, people preferred to learn ‘English’ rather than ‘American’; whereas in others we struggled to compete. 

The Communist Context

Our earliest operations in East Asia were in China; in 1943 we funded a scientific cultural mission based in Chongqing. This was headed by Joseph Needham, a noted British scientist, historian and sinologist. 

By 1946 we had opened four institutes across the country, which provided English teaching and premises for film screenings, lectures and exhibitions. Following the formation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, it grew increasingly difficult for us to operate. As such, we were forced to suspend operations there in 1952. 

During the Cold War, East Asia was the scene of considerable tensions between pro- and anti- communist movements. The social and political context made working in the region difficult. We adopted a neutral stance where possible, and focused on encouraging local cultural activities.

The US government dedicated considerable resources to cultural relations specifically to combat communism. When Japan restored diplomatic relations with the USSR, the US’s outlay there was ten times larger than ours. The dominance of activities precluded our work in Vietnam, as we realised any impact we had would be ‘minimal’ in comparison.

Building Relations

In 1972 we re-established relations with China, forming the Great Britain-China committee.

Collaborating with the Chinese government, we began to place Chinese students of English and medicine in UK universities in 1973, and organised the visit of a delegation of medical specialists from the UK the following year. In 1979 we recommenced direct operations in the country. 

From the 1970s, we began to work with the Overseas Development Agency (now DfID) to provide educational aid and technical co-operation projects across the region. These included providing books to educational institutions, English teaching, and the management of a number of volunteer schemes such as the VSO. 

The additional funding from the ODA allowed us to massively increase our operations, although our aid-funded work for a time overwhelmed our other activities, such as the arts. For example, a Country Director for Thailand in the 1980s was concerned that we were still seen as an aid giving organisation, rather than a cultural relations body. 

However, our work promoting higher education, and in the arts defined us a distinct cultural organisation, encouraging engagement with British culture from across the region.