Resisting linguistic imperialism: a response to the 'Chinese Dream.'(Special Issue: Cultural Economies and Cultural Activism)

Author:Zhou, Xiaozhou


The "Chinese Dream" is a term that has become globally renowned and frequently discussed since the President of People's Republic of China Xi Jinping came to power in March 2013. It is rightly and commonly understood as a politically engineered neologism that expresses China's national plan to rejuvenate the nation, improve living standards, construct a better society and build a strengthened military. Within this 'top-down' policy framework, there are countless supporting strategies being implemented, including the promotion of Chinese language and culture. One such strategic innovation has involved changes with regard to English language education in China. China's new found eagerness to promote its language and culture, not only within its own ethincally and culturally complex domestic territories, but also globally, can immediately be interpreted as a countermeasure to the worldwide spread of US popular culture as well as English as a Lingua Franca (henceforth ELF). The latter, of course, is commonly understood as a consequences of economic globalisation, or at least the economic interconnection of regional markets and concommitant flow of goods, services and capital. Recent decades have witnessed a tremendous transformation--often unnoticed--in how the languages of nations, tribes, and whole civilisations, have been undergoing, and the cultural implications of language. It is an assumption of this paper that language is not a 'neutral' media of communication, but embedded in the political economy of a country. By implication, culture itself is neither neutral nor insignificant with regard the economy of state politics and the orientation of national policy changes.

The central government of the People's Republic of China have indeed recognised that culture can no longer be taken for granted, or assumed to emerge from the routine social development and education of its people. Culture is a realm of values and beliefs, as well as aptitudes and capabilities, and these can change and will change. The question remains, under what conditions will cultural change ensue. China's government are providing for new policy conditions of cultural change, and these conditions are in relation to what is calls "core socialist values" and the recognition of the creative and cultural industries as a central dimension of national economic policy. Resulting from this, (and other measures), is a renewed concern with heritage, identity, cultural production and cultural content of which the Chinese language is one pervasive dimension. In the West, the production and function of language is rarely considered as a part of 'cultural production', and yet this is what I am assuming in this paper, largely by way of observation of such recent developments in China's policy frameworks. Given how the "creative and cultural industries" as an economic concept, along with its range of creative practices (in design, fashion, gaming, music and so on), are so heavily mediated by globally disseminated Western products, the role of language within the creative economy is also, I venture to say, one seriously ignored subject for research. My study will undertake a linguistic analysis--but one which I hope will demonstrate a relevance and viability for cultural economy research, (where cultural economy is subject to a 'politics' of government policy making).

The phenomenon of ELF has been warmly received in some quarters and criticized in others. Scholars in support believe that ELF is a natural pan-national social development and its priority of communication allows for new spaces of cultural variation and accommodation (Guido and Seidlhofer, 2014; Jenkins, 2012, 2013; Motschenbacher, 2013; Schneider, 2012). The opposing view would understand ELF as promoting a monolithic English dominance and is merely another form of linguistic imperialism--where, like all imperialisms, linguistic diversity and cultural identity will be potentially under threat (Pennycook, 1994, 1998; Phillipson, 1992, 2003; Phillipson and Skutnabb-Kangas, 1997, 1999; 2008). Evidence has shown that in the face of ELF expansion, certain kinds of negotiation and modification have taken place in professional and academic contexts so as to preserve local languages and cultures (Canagarajah, 2005, 2013, 2014). The current research in this paper aims to investigate to what extent the tension caused by ELF and China's national strategy has had an impact on the academics in China where English has been taught as a compulsory course for students of all levels.

In this paper I will approach the above tension from the perspective of teachers' classroom discourse, particularly the student's use of their mother tongue (Chinese) in an environment for second language (English) useage. Most previous studies exploring first language use in second language classrooms tend to focus on the metalinguistic or motivations and purposes of teachers' first language use in specific second language situations, so as to understand students' second language learning process (Barnard and McLellan, 2013; Brooks-Lewis, 2009; Carless, 2007; Copland and Neokleous, 2011; Macaro, 2000, 2001b, 2005; Moodley, 2007; Nakatsukasa and Loewen, 2014; Tian and Macaro, 2012). However, my intention here is to explore within a sociolinguistic framework the tension between first and second language use, using Phillipson's conception of linguistic imperialism theory, and in so doing I will assess the effectiveness of national language policy and the broader political landscape of cultural self-determination.

The Chinese Dream and Its Linguistic Implications

The term "Chinese Dream" was firstly proposed by Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2012 during his talk at an exhibition named Road to Rejuvenate. The term was subsequently was popularised in 2013 and after, and is now routinely used by journalists and visible in official government documents. Since then, the term has been frequently interpreted by Xi himself, party media, and political researchers. Though the overarching policy implications of the Chinese Dream seem vague, Xi has referred to the dream as national rejuvenation, an improvement of people's livelihoods, economic prosperity, the construction of a better society and a strengthened military. The meaning of this term can be understood on three levels. It represents (i) an advancement of the harmonious society for individuals, (ii) of the rejuvenation of the Chinese civilisation for the country, and (iii) of national strength (primarily military) for security of the nation.

However, the Chinese Dream is not exclusive to China and its people living in the P.R. China. Inwardly, it does indeed emphasise the rejuvenation of the nation and the improvement of people's living standards. It also includes the expansion and impact of a renewed China worldwide, enhancing the Chinese image on the world stage and in global markets ('soft power' policies). To this end, one key element that crosses both domestic and international or foreign policy-oriented concerns, is inevitably the promotion of Chinese language and culture. New strategies for promoting the Chinese language and culture is commonly considered a counter-strategy in the face of the evident development of English language education in China and, as noted, the rise of English as a global Lingua Franca. English is commonly learned as the preferred foreign language in China, although since colonial times has remained a second language for the majority of the language learners. Since the Reform and "Opening Up" policies (of Deng Xiaoping) of the late 1970s became effective, English language education has been developing rapidly, particularly in metropolises enjoying economic prosperity such as Beijing and Shanghai. It is now taught as compulsory in most elementary schools, secondary schools and universities, and is included in all types of national and local students' attainment tests.

Nonetheless, subtle impacts on English language education in China could be witnessed in relation to the Chinese Dream. One such impact was the deliberate downgrading of the status of English in Chinese society, manifest, for example, by the reform of the English test in the national College Entrance Examination. Since the resumption of the traditional College Entrance Examination in 1977 after the Cultural Revolution, English has always been a compulsory test for secondary school students majoring in either science or arts for further education entrance. It has traditionally enjoyed a resulting performance equal to mathematics or Chinese itself. However, in 2014 the Ministry of Education announced that it was reviewing the necessity of English testing in the Entrance Examination, and one possibility was to outsource the English test to other types of organisations. Students would be able to choose the time and frequency of taking the test, and the test result would not be in the form of the actual score, as in the past, but rather of differring levels, where each university would simply determine their threshold level of English for recruitment (MoE, 2014).

The Ministry of Education did not call for an immediate implementation of this new policy and will wait untill 2017 when a consultation with each municipality and province is complete. In fact, demands for reforming the College Entrance Examination has been a topic in the media for decades, but this is the first time substantial changes are proposed. This Ministry of Education decision is suspected to have been made under the pressure of some local authorities; for instance, in 2013 the Beijing Municipal Government announced its decision to reform both the Secondary School Entrance Examination and College Entrance Examination taken in the city (CEE, 2013). This reform will take place in 2016, and the proportion of the English test in a students general grade profile will be reduced whereas the proportion of...

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