Photograph of Beijing city skyline
‘A moderately prosperous society’ Beijing. Photo ©

Pixabay, adapted from the original.

November 2017

As China becomes the biggest economy on Earth, the attraction of the UK’s soft power assets for its people has never been greater. British Council CEO Sir Ciarán Devane explains why China really matters to the UK.

Engaging with China’s global ambitions

The UK will shortly host the UK/China High-Level People to People Dialogue (‘P2P’). The P2P, as the name implies, focuses on the areas which connect the British and Chinese peoples, including culture, education and sport - many of which are also high value economic drivers for the UK. This year, women’s issues will also be included for the first time, highlighting how shared approaches from two leading economies could make a difference in addressing the gender gap, and unleash latent economic potential. 

As UK Secretary-General to the dialogue, I am keenly looking forward to the discussions this year. Promoting sustained engagement with people in China through the work of the British Council and other major British soft power assets has always been important. With President Xi has recently set out China’s global ambitions, the timing of this year’s P2P dialogue is particularly opportune. The UK is already working alongside China through economic strategies which are complementary, with the UK’s energy, creativity and entrepreneurship being key drivers. In this context, strong people to people relations are increasingly leading to closer national dialogue and partnership. 

Deploying soft power assets for positive impact is an effective mechanism for strengthening bilateral UK-China relations over the long-term

The absolute scale of the Chinese economy ($11.3 trillion), with its commitment to building a “moderately prosperous society” focusing on a skilled, urban future is a key reason for the UK to pursue engagement with China. Deploying soft power assets for positive impact is an effective mechanism for strengthening bilateral UK-China relations over the long-term. Doing so builds greater understanding and trust; and so creates opportunity, advantage and prosperity for the UK. This engagement allows the UK to build ties based on mutual familiarity and benefit that are both aligned with the UK’s national interests and to China’s own strategic development priorities. 

China has a truly remarkable record in poverty alleviation over the last 30 years. There are new areas where (working with China) the UK can drive greater impact and positive change – for example, working with China through its ‘Belt and Road’ initiative in third countries. The UK is also well placed to play a key role in helping China deliver on its international commitments, including the Sustainable Development Goals – and to work together with China on global challenges such as climate change and public health. 

Benefits to China – and the UK

During visits in 2016 ministers Justine Greening and Nick Gibb both heard first-hand the thirst from China to discuss with the UK social mobility in education. Innovation, education and skills are key areas where China seeks to engage with others to meet its development plans; and where China must roll out solutions quickly and at large scale. China looks to the UK as a nation of thinkers, and one which supports the exchange of ideas for global good. This is reflected in the scale of joint research, with the UK now China’s second largest research partner. 

China also looks to the UK to support the growth of a more balanced economy, and its focus on the creative sector as an economic pillar (as it is in the UK) provides a strong basis for a growing, more impactful programme of cultural activity and policy exchange. Such a programme also addresses important values underpinning this sector’s strong growth in the UK, such as freedom of information and creative license. Collaboration between creative professionals in China and the UK through co-creation and co-production is on the rise.

Research for the British Council shows a clear link between the UK’s soft power impact and significantly higher levels of trust, as well as a preference to buy British. The UK’s soft power assets are already a strong attraction for young Chinese people, and, with more and more of them speaking English, this has the potential to reap a high dividend. 

It is estimated that by 2020 the number of English speakers in China will outnumber native English speakers in the rest of the world put together

Indeed, it is estimated that by 2020 the number of English speakers in China will outnumber native English speakers in the rest of the world put together. There has been a strong UK presence in this sector for many years (through Pearson, EF and others), both in face-to-face teaching and in training in education systems. The British Council has also recently opened an English language training centre in Nanjing, its first in China. In turn, the British Council continues to support the growth in Chinese language study in the UK, as part of its work to promote the learning and teaching of world languages, and in building a more China-aware workforce to support the UK Government’s Industrial Strategy. At present Mandarin is one of the few foreign languages with growing take-up in British schools.

The UK’s universities also benefit enormously from Chinese students, researchers and academics. Higher education alone is one of the country’s largest export sectors with China, worth around £3bn/year. By 2020, the UK will be the leading country delivering quality transnational education programmes in China (it is already responsible for some 23% of all such programmes in China, with 28,000 students). High value commercial opportunities exist throughout the wider education sector for British style education in China (from kindergartens and schools to vocational and skills training – worth an estimated export value of £1.08 billion / year).  

Looking ahead to the future of UK-China relations as a whole, the role and value of people to people engagement and of key British soft power institutions in building trust and understanding become ever more apparent. 

Sir Ciarán Devane, British Council CEO and UK Secretary-General to the 2017 P2P Dialogue

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