Steerpike Steerpike

Fears over Mandarin shortage in Whitehall

Dominic Lipinski - WPA Pool /Getty Images

‘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.

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