Press 3 For Chinese? by Patricia Huang, Matthews Asia

During Chinese President Xi Jinping’s state visit to Washington last fall, he and President Barack Obama made rather unsurprising pledges to boost bilateral relations—agreeing to advance cooperation over such top issues as cybersecurity, investment treaties and climate change.

But there was one relatively small—yet still sweeping—new initiative that caught my attention in particular. This was Obama’s call for a dramatic expansion in Mandarin language learning among U.S. students.

Dubbed “1 Million Strong,” this effort aims to increase the number of kindergarten to 12th grade students currently studying Mandarin, from about 200,000 now to 1 million by 2020. “(This) will ensure a greater understanding of China, create a pipeline of China-savvy employees and ensure that students from all walks of life have the skills and opportunities to compete in today’s workforce,” said Carola McGiffert, president of the U.S. nonprofit established to aid this effort.

As a parent of a student in an immersion program, where all core subjects are taught in Mandarin, I found this to be very encouraging news. The initiative pledges to help establish Chinese language curriculum norms, double the number of Mandarin language teachers in the U.S. and help expand new technology platforms to assist Chinese language learners, especially those in underserved communities.

In just the past decade, Chinese early language and immersion programs across the U.S. have grown more than nine-fold, now totaling over 170 programs. The first Mandarin immersion program was started in San Francisco in 1981 but only a couple dozen other programs were launched nationally over the next 25 years. It wasn’t until 2007 that the U.S. experienced a Mandarin immersion “boom,” and the number of such new programs began growing by double digits each year.

Perhaps not so coincidentally that same year, in his keynote speech to the Communist Party Congress, then Chinese President Hu Jintao urged further investment in the country’s resources for “soft power,” defined as the ability to produce outcomes through persuasion and attraction rather than coercion or payment. What followed was billions of dollars spent toward China’s “charm offensive.” Born out of this soft power campaign was the massive roll out of China’s global language and cultural promotion organization, known as Confucius Institutes (akin to France’s Alliance Française). The development of Confucius Institutes and classrooms has surged in recent years to over 1,000 worldwide, including more than 450 in the U.S. and 300 throughout Europe.

The network’s goal is to build linguistic bridges and nurture more cultural exchange, but according to new research published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, there are economic advantages to boot. The higher a country’s soft power, the better it also is for its exports, the study found.

“Being perceived as a force for good has a direct economic payoff,” according to Andrew Rose, a professor of International Business at the Haas School of Business. “Succinctly, winning hearts and minds also wins sales.”

This soft power benefit appears to be the case for South Korea, where a recent rise in Korean pop culture has led to higher sales of Korean goods and services elsewhere in Asia.

As Chinese e-commerce continues to strengthen, the written Chinese language is also anticipated to become the most dominant language of the Internet, surpassing English usage online. It’s already closing in with almost 705 million Chinese-speaking Internet users, compared to about 852 million English-speaking Internet users. Spanish trails in third place among top Internet languages at 245 million.

Even Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg (whose firm is banned in China) has been speaking publicly more and more in Mandarin. Most recently, Zuckerberg met what he called a “meaningful personal milestone” when he spoke entirely in Mandarin with Xi during an Internet industry forum in Seattle—Xi’s first stop on his state visit.

Patricia Huang
Investor Communications Manager
Matthews Asia

As of January 2, 2016, accounts managed by Matthews Asia did not hold positions in Facebook.

Matthews Asia: Press 3 For Chinese?