Dragon Rising: Five ESL Topics for Understanding China’s Growing Influence

Dragon Rising: Five ESL Topics for Understanding China’s Growing Influence

This is China’s century. We’re just along for the ride.

We’ve all heard sentiments like this.

Though they are expressed with varying degrees of expertise, it’s not difficult to predict that China will become a global superpower, an economic titan, and a major geopolitical force in our current century. The foundations for this new power are already laid, and China’s economic performance, in particular, continues to re-write the rulebook. Assertions and predictions like these tend to provoke uncertainty and fear among those who might resent China’s recent successes; I write just as a new US administration is working to articulate its attitude to China, so this feels like an appropriate time to help our students understand China’s new role in world affairs.

When discussing The Middle Kingdom with my students, I’m always careful on two different fronts. First, I admit publicly (here, and in my classroom) that I am not an expert on this subject. I spent four years in China, teaching and traveling, but this was a bare fraction of what is needed to gain an ‘understanding’ of the country; I’ve spoken with old China hands who doubt it’s ever possible for a westerner to claim that they ‘get it’. I’ve learned a lot, and I enjoy using that knowledge to help others, but I’d never in a thousand years claim that I ‘get it’, either.

Secondly, many ESL teachers have Chinese students, and so must tread very carefully when discussing matters of Chinese history, politics and sovereignty. Although most of us regard Taiwan as de facto independent, the Chinese most definitely do not; the same sensitivity is required over issues such as the Tiananmen 1989 protests, Chinese cultural impact on Tibet, human rights, and the rule of law. I was effectively banned from discussing these topics by VSO, the terrific charitable organization which sent me to China, as much for my own protection (I would have been fired and sent home) as to maintain the reputation and perception of the UK, for which I was an unwitting - and occasionally witless - ambassador. If in doubt, simply don’t say it.

However, there are at least five major topic areas we can safely address, and I’d like to pass on ideas for debates, research and presentations related to each:

5 ESL Topics for Understanding China’s Growing Influence

  1. 1

    China’s Economy

    Staggering. Unprecedented. Meteoric. Breath-taking. Unique. Elicit these adjectives from your students, and add as many as you can; when describing China’s economic achievements, especially since 1979, we will quickly run out of superlatives.

    This is because no economy has ever done what China’s is doing now. A nation with a largely agrarian economy in the 1950s, lacking both a decent inland infrastructure and a history of industrial production, now boasts a comprehensive rail, air and road network, and GDP growth which turns western economists green with envy. Invite your students to read about this extraordinary achievement and to trace its origins in the pro-industrialization policies of Chairman Mao in the 1950s and 60s, but principally those of his successor, Deng Xiaoping.

    The importance of Deng’s seminal decision to ‘open up’ China’s economy in 1979 and to permit foreign trade, investment and tourism en masse for the first time, is impossible to overstate. Through readings, interviews and documentaries, help your students to understand just how fragile and economically weak China had become by the time of the 1949 revolution, and how a passionate and abiding desire for economic growth and resource security (of food, oil, coal, metals etc) grew out of the humiliation of occupation by the Japanese.

    Then ask your students to examine recent economic news from China, and to track the changes in annual GDP growth. (Hint: from a break-neck 14% growth in 2007 - a figure which no experienced economist would call sustainable - China’s growth has fallen to under 7% (2015). This compares to figures of 2.5% for the UK and USA.)

    Where has this growth come from? A quick analysis reveals that, although we might perceive modern China as a collection of cities wreathed in industrial pollution from churning out consumer electronics and inexpensive toys, more than half of China’s economic activity is in the services sector. Still, manufacturing growth has been nothing short of mesmeric, encouraged by unprecedented foreign investment, a very amenable tax environment, and the gradual setting aside of generations of mistrust and suspicion.

    Then, trace where China’s exports are heading: the US (17% of all exports), Hong Kong (a Special Administrative Region of China since the UK handover in 1997, 15.5%) and Japan (6.4%).

    So, a developing nation with a huge manpower base, which is well set up to mass produce cheap consumer items, is providing nearly one in five of all goods imported into the world’s most prosperous nation. Turn this idea on its head, and ask your students why the US-China relationship works in this way, and not the other way around. How is it that the US, with its huge resources and large population, isn’t providing a good portion of the world’s manufactured goods? What changed, to trigger the shift toward a services economy? What implications does this have for employment, social cohesion, education and governance? We ask these questions because China will be facing just such a shift in the coming decades, as cheap production moves to India, Indonesia, Malaysia and eventually Africa, and China must adapt its economy accordingly. What skills will be important? (Hint: English!)

  2. 2

    China and Debt

    Sensationalist headlines remind us that China has bought stupefying quantities of US treasury bonds, the chief mechanism (outside of borrowing from the Federal Reserve) for the US government to quickly raise money without increasing taxes or cutting spending. China’s willingness to buy these bonds can be seen as self-serving, as this form of borrowing supports the economy of their largest trading partner. Another way is to see these investments as merely good sense. US T-bills (as they are known) are one of the most secure of all investments (at the time of writing), with a reasonable return and dependable performance over decades.

    But, it’s important to have your students consider the underlying geopolitical meaning of these debts. China and the US have entered a period of mutual dependency, one based on a shared desire for growth and security. However, the debt situation also means that the two economies are effectively holding each other to ransom. China could not achieve 7% growth, or anything like it, without free access to US markets, neither could the US hope to weather the economic storm if China were to devalue the dollar by liquidating a huge chunk of its T-bill holdings. Your students might see the US attitude to China as exploitative (and they might see elements of racism there in recent statements on China from US politicians) but this is to ignore the tremendous power China also holds over the US.

    While working on this, don’t forget to note that China itself is also massively in debt as a result of aggressive borrowing and investment in infrastructure, as well as expensive government support of the state banks, which have been in danger of collapse at different times in recent decades. If there is time - for the topic is so complex and fascinating as to deserve its own focus - consider the environmental impacts of rapid economic growth, and whether a better standing of living can ever be seen as worth the heart-breaking sacrifice of the natural environment. Again, your Chinese students might balk at these claims, and assert instead that the environmental degradation is both over-stated and relatively easy to repair, given time. I’ve found that arguing my case achieved little progress against such stout headwinds, and I’d advise you not to press this too far.

  3. 3

    China as a Regional Power

    From Mongolia to Laos, and from Korea to Kazakhstan, Chinese entrepreneurs have arrived to set up businesses, build shops, operate import-export firms and generally integrate themselves into local economies. I found a Chinese-owned corner shop on tiny, remote sandbar off the coast of Belize, of all places. This economic diaspora is emblematic of China’s determination to achieve economic success around the world, and particularly to strengthen its hand in regional affairs.

    It’s easy to over-state China’s territorial attitudes, but there is a strong history of expansion, most recently in the period after 1950. With the absorption of Turkestan (now Xinjiang province) and Tibet (now the Tibetan Autonomous Region, or more simply, Xi Zang) China almost doubled in size. More recently, China has begun to flex its diplomatic and military muscles in a bid to control the strategically vital South China Sea islands. These, and other disputes (regarding the Senkaku / Diao Yu Tai islands which China contests with Japan, a smaller island dispute with South Korea, and a dormant territorial conflict with India) are fertile ground for research by your students.

    Take a look at the South China Sea together. This is the tract of ocean between Vietnam and the Philippines, and its strategic importance is absolutely crucial. Nowhere on earth sees a greater tonnage of shipping each year, and if you examine a map, you’ll see why: Hong Kong, Singapore, and other major shipping centers all rely on this route to reach markets in the US and Europe, while vast amounts of oil are shipped through the region from the Middle East. Control over the seaways is therefore a strategic bonus, and China has gone out on a limb to secure the tiny islands which dot this sparse, remote region.

    Ask your students to puzzle this out. They’ll quickly find that the nation states bordering the South China Sea (the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam) have claimed the two archipelagos in the region (known in the west as the Paracel and Spratly islands, though there are various local names) either in whole or in part. This has brought China into armed conflict with patrol boats from Vietnam and the Philippines, and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), Air Force (PLAF) and Navy (PLAN) have built docks and airstrips on the tiny islands so that warships and military aircraft can patrol the region.

    What does this increased projection of regional power tell us about modern China? Is there the genuine risk of a conflict over these tiny islands? China has claimed that the area hides enormous oil and gas reserves - what is the latest thinking as to the size and quality of these resources?

  4. 4

    China’s Military

    If we’re prepared to be a bit blunt and reductive about it, we could characterize Chinese military thinking in the 1950s in two words: Human wave. Since then, tactical thinking in the PLA has become much more nuanced, with a shift of emphasis away from large, land-based wars fought for ideological reasons, to a new focus on technology, regional and global reach, cyber-warfare and secure communications.

    This topic is peripheral to the overall discussion, but it’s a very useful illustration of the changes which have transformed China from an agrarian backwater into a global player. No modern military worth its salt, certainly not one who wished to be taken seriously, would be without designs for a stealth aircraft, a mature ‘blue-water’ navy, and elaborate electronic countermeasures, including a capacity for aggressive cyber-warfare. China how has its own military-run space program (at the time of writing, two ‘taikonauts’ are in space aboard China’s second space station, Tian Gong 2) which has launched dozens of reconnaissance and military surveillance satellites. The PLAN now operates an aircraft carrier for the first time, as well as a new generation of submarines designed to stealthily attack distant targets with nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles.

    Again, what does this expensive and far-reaching investment in the military tell us about China? Would a nation with such ambition and global reach necessarily possess its own nuclear arsenal? Does China, for example, have the military capacity to genuinely threaten Taiwan, in the event that the island’s population voted to assert their permanent independence from the People’s Republic?

  5. 5

    China’s Education System

    I’m sure you can readily call to mind a stereotypical Chinese classroom, and it’s likely that your students can, too. Ignoring the bluntness of these preconceptions for a moment, describe the salient characteristics together: quiet and reserved students sitting in silence behind rows of ageing desks, while a teacher lectures them at length from a raised dais next to the blackboard. There is little interaction, and ruthlessly strict discipline. There might be mountains of homework, and incredibly stressful, life-defining tests.

    I haven’t stood in a Chinese classroom since 2003, but I worked within the education system at a time of tremendous change. The old methods of rote-learning and repetition were just beginning to show signs of decline, with a new style of teaching and learning seemingly waiting in the wings for a younger generation of teachers to come in, become departmental and regional leaders, and make major changes. Though I worked in two provinces where traditionalism held a firm grip, and which were grindingly poor (Guizhou, in the south-west, is third-from-bottom in the GDP-per-capita table, while arid, northern Gansu is dead last) I feel certain these changes are beginning to take hold, and that the modern Chinese classroom is a more open, engaging and enjoyable place to be. This is my hope, because the past versions were a recipe largely for drudgery and underachievement.

    Begin with the Big Picture. Ask your students what the purpose of education is, where they come from. Their list might include ‘intelligence’, ‘job skills’ and ‘worldliness’, but in China, the education system was (and, to an extent that is impossible to ignore, still is) influenced by politics. Education was seen as a method of shaping generations of young minds in the ideology of the Communist Party; my student-teachers’ timetables featured insufficient pedagogical and language practice due to a preponderance of politically-motivated topics such as ‘Mao Zedong Thought’ and, later, courses on the philosophy of then-leader, Jiang Zemin. And please don’t imagine that these topics were universally welcomed by the students; only when I got to know them better would they reveal just how dull and irrelevant they found these courses, which were often taught by older teachers who were nearing retirement and who, in the memorably idiomatic description of a student of mine, were ‘just phoning it in, every time’.

    In fact, try a little thought experiment, an analogy which is imperfect but still serviceable: invite your students to imagine the reaction of American teenagers whose sports, music and drama classes were threatened by new requirements to study ‘Trumpism’.

Areas for Study and Practice

For an upper-intermediate or advanced ESL class which has some time to delve into topics in detail, China is a fertile and illustrative area for discussion, reading and presentations. Your students could prepare essays or short talks on any of the above issues, but here are some useful, specific questions:

  • How has China changed, since 1949? (Place a strict word limit on this, or your more ambitious students will be at risk of writing a book by accident)
  • Who should really own the South China Sea islands? (Ditto! This is also a chance for your students to concoct a compromise which might settle the dispute.)
  • Is 7% GDP growth sustainable? If so, how can it be sustained without doing irreparable harm to the environment? If not, what are the likely results for China’s economy of such a slow-down?
  • Discuss urban-rural inequality in China. What policies have been put in place to narrow the tremendous gap between the education available in farming areas, and that found in the cities?
  • Will China continue to be ‘the world’s factory’? Are other nations poised to offer even more attractive investment environments? Does attracting foreign investment necessitate driving down workers’ wages, for example, or suppressing unions?


Perhaps the most valuable application of this learning, though, would be in actually interacting with Chinese people. If you have students from China who don’t mind being put on the spot (and I can’t advise sufficiently strongly that you take care here) then they’ll be in a position to confirm your students’ findings, elaborate on areas of confusion, and hopefully explode some of the many myths which still swirl around discussions of China and her intentions. Bear in mind, here as always, that no single individual can be expected to represent their government, any more than they can speak for a nation of 1,400,000,000 people. You’d feel pretty uncomfortable if hauled up to account for something your leadership (a flamboyant and unpredictable president-elect, for example) has said or done, particularly if you didn’t vote for them; recall that, in China, there are no meaningful, multi-party elections, so your students didn’t even have a choice in the policies now governing their futures.

Fertile Ground, but Tread Carefully

Hold debates, ask challenging questions, and have your students come back to you with facts, not assumptions or myths. Be on the lookout for insensitive, stereotypical and prejudiced views; this is an opportunity to see the Chinese as they really are, and not as the homogeneous, secretive, ambitious group they have been portrayed to be. Part fact from fiction and ask your students to try to understand the wishes and hopes of people who have spend millennia surrounded by corrupt and incompetent local officials, elitist governments with whacky priorities, aggressive and exploitative neighbors, and a single ruling party which knowingly conflates loyalty to the party with love of country. China might be growing now, and taking its place in the sun, but these achievements have come only after long decades of struggle and effort. A clearer understanding of China’s people has never been more important, and if you help your students to cut through the clutter and preconceptions, you’ll see that we’re not so different, after all.

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