Fears over Mandarin shortage in Whitehall

24 November 2021

1:45 AM

24 November 2021

1:45 AM

‘China Spy Blitz’ blared the Sun this morning: ‘UK spooks hiring Mandarin speakers in cyber war.’ Spy bosses, the paper reports, are embarking on a recruitment drive, directed at people who speak the language or have grown up within a multilingual family, with MI5, MI6 and GCHQ all increasingly wary about a moment of reckoning with the Communist superpower. Yet while the secret services have woken up to the threat posed by Beijing, others within government appear to still be fast asleep.

Newly obtained figures reveal that the number of fluent Mandarin speakers within the Foreign Office (FCDO) has dropped by nearly 10 per cent since 2016. A Freedom of Information request by Mr Steerpike showed that 41 British diplomats hold the ‘gold standard’ certification in Mandarin, known as C1, down from 45 over the past five years. Such figures refer only to the number who have passed the C1 exam and do not reflect the number of total staff who speak some level of Mandarin within the department. C1 exams are valid for five years, with diplomats then expected to re-qualify.

Since the summer of 2016 – when David Cameron was heralding a new UK-China ‘golden era’ – relations between the two countries have deteriorated rapidly over Beijing’s atrocities in Xinjiang, the subjugation of Hong Kong and the handling of the Covid pandemic. Yet despite the government admitting in its landmark defence paper in March that China is the ‘biggest state-based threat’ to the UK’s economic security and presents a ‘systemic challenge’ to Britain, there are cross-party concerns within Parliament that the Foreign Office is not moving quickly enough to improve Chinese language skills within the UK’s diplomatic corps.

Alicia Kearns, Conservative MP and a member of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee told Mr S: ‘If we’re going to get serious about understanding China, and making policy to protect our country, our values and the international order, we need mandarins who understand Mandarin. The Foreign Office should be investing heavily in increasing its Mandarin speakers – not lackadaisically allowing a decline. There’s no chance the CCP is failing to get its diplomats skilled in foreign languages, and a failure to do so on our part is unforgivable.’

Stephen Kinnock, Labour MP and the party’s spokesman on Asia and the Pacific, added: ‘Senior officials at GCHQ are right to be concerned about China’s digital dominance, and the cyber security threat that this will pose to Western nations like Britain. Yet ministers are putting Britain’s values, national security and strategic interests up for sale in exchange for ‘strings attached’ Chinese investment. The decline in Mandarin speakers in the FCDO shows that the department is failing to prioritise the need to fully understand China’s objectives, and to respond accordingly.’

The total figure for FCDO officers with a valid C1 certification doubled between August 2011 and August 2016 from 277 to 573, a figure which has dropped slightly in the five years since, down to 558 in August 2021. And despite recent talk within UK government circles of an ‘Indo-Pacific tilt’, the number of Arabic C1-certified speakers has dropped from 55 to 43, with those fluent in Indonesian and Korean dropping from ten and seven to seven and ‘fewer than five’ respectively, with the number of Japanese speakers remaining consistent at 16. By contrast, the total of Russian speakers has risen over the same period from 28 to 44 with French retaining its crown as the language spoken by most C1 certified diplomats, up from 145 in 2016 to 161 in 2021.

Let’s hope more mandarins brush up on their Mandarin soon.<//>

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