Required reading for 1 billion students

November 17, 2006

China could be gold mine for Western publishers of learning materials, but it's not easy to enter, say Harriet Swain and Mandy Garner

One day in September, 120,000 Chinese children aged between seven and 12 sat down to take a test. The skill being tested was proficiency in the English language, and the students were among hundreds of thousands of Chinese who every year sit exams set by Cambridge Esol (English for Speakers of Other Languages).

But exams are only part of the Chinese English-language story.

Before them come books. This year, Macmillan celebrated selling more than 100 million copies of its English-language textbook for Chinese primary school children, New Standard English . That is 60 million more sales globally than The Da Vinci Code . Macmillan is in the process of introducing an English-language course for China's 95 million secondary-school pupils.

It has also commissioned a New Standard College English for tertiary-level students, to be published in two or three years, which will incorporate an online element. The market for English-language books at university is the next big opportunity for publishers - and the academics who write the books. It is a market where Western publishers are already trying to increase their influence and bring Western academic research to China through arrangements with local publishing houses.

Encouraging people to learn English is now a key aim of the Chinese Government. Six years ago, it announced that English should be introduced throughout the primary sector, bringing in 135 million more English-language students at a stroke. Then, in 2001, China was admitted to the World Trade Organisation, drawing it into the process of globalisation - which is dominated by the English language. Meanwhile, Beijing is preparing to host the Olympic Games in 2008, and the Chinese Government has announced that it wants most of the 8 million inhabitants of the capital to be able to speak at least 100 sentences in at least one foreign language.

By 2008, there are expected to be more English speakers in China than native English speakers in the rest of the world.

Figures dominate any story about China because the numbers involved are so mindboggling. But there is a lot more to the story than numbers. First, while China's enthusiasm to learn English is not in doubt, less clear is who it wants - or can get - to teach it. Very few Westerners are proficient enough in Mandarin to be able to face a class of Chinese eight-year-olds, and most teaching is done by Chinese, supported through government teacher-training schemes.

Meanwhile, the desire for Beijing to be seen as an international city and for people across China to become accomplished linguists conflicts with a residual fear of what greater openness to the outside could bring.

"Education is a very sensitive area in China," says Mickey Bonin, regional manager, East Asia and Australasia, for Cambridge Esol, which is developing teacher-training qualifications for China. "It isn't like selling cars."

While he says the Government has been open and relatively helpful to his organisation, it is impossible to bypass bureaucracy and deal only with the private sector, as happens in the West. This means that everything takes time.

But there are lots of pressures that could bring change, such as individual ambition. According to Barney Allan, a partner at Ian Taylor Associates, consultants on publishing in China, parents know that their children will need English if they are going to succeed. "They have only one kid each, and every Chinese parent wants their kid to be a concert pianist or a doctor or lawyer, and for this they have to have international qualifications," he says. Such aspirations have also led to a growth in the number of private schools in China, and the elite now send their children to international schools, which never used to be allowed.

New Oriental, a private Chinese company offering English classes and preparation for US college admissions tests, began operating in 1993. It recently floated on the stock exchange and has grown from three schools and 23 learning centres to 25 schools and 111 learning centres over the past five years. Last year, it had more than 375,000 students on its books.

Allan predicts that the private education sector will offer some of the best opportunities for English-language teaching publishers, in particular small companies keen to enter the Chinese market. "There is huge potential in English-language teaching," he says. "Everything from kindergarten books to training chief executives."

But publishers will not find it easy - publishing is still prohibited in China. "Private companies setting up in China call themselves workshops, printers, advertising industries - anything but publishers," Allan says.

Foreign companies get around this by setting up arrangements with state-owned Chinese publishing companies, but these have to be worked out carefully because joint ventures and co-publishing are not formally allowed.

Once an arrangement has been set up, the challenges really begin. According to Simon Greenall, one of the authors of New Standard English , the Chinese Ministry of Education imposes conditions on grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation and the social and cultural content of textbooks. It also has a list of about 3,500 words considered to be the most frequently used in English. Greenall says at times he has had to try to write an exciting dialogue for teenagers including disparate words such as "Ottawa", "dumpling", "goldfish" and "shabby". Finished course books have to be submitted to the Ministry of Education for approval, which will check that they are in keeping with Chinese law and portray only positive moral values and role models and respect for parents and older people. Negative feelings about, say, upcoming exams are unacceptable, while certain words - from "human rights" and "God" to "change" and even "boss" - may prompt questions.

Chris Paterson, chairman of Macmillan Education, says the investment involved in the writing, design and publishing process of an English-language course in China, including frequent rewriting, is huge - about two and a half to three times the amount spent on a similar course in the UK. "You can succeed financially only if you sell a huge number of copies," he says. "The risks are very, very high." This is because although most figures bandied about in relation to China are enormous, those relating to the price of books are tiny - sometimes 40p for a book that would cost £10 in the UK.

There is also the problem of piracy - New Oriental was fined $774,000 (Pounds 405,000) and required to make a public apology after being accused of illegally copying test papers. But publishers say the situation is improving.

Nevertheless, China remains a hugely competitive market. What everyone hopes is that the Chinese Government will privatise the publishing sector or at least relax the rules. But even if it does not, Paterson says opportunities in English-language teaching and publishing are likely to grow, in particular at tertiary levels and in specialist areas. "We are lucky enough to succeed, but if we had no sales I would still be justifying it in terms of strategic planning - putting a marker down in the market," he says.

Western publishers are increasing their efforts to bring textbooks by Western academics to Chinese universities and to take Chinese research to the West. One project, run by Thomson Learning and the Higher Education Press, China's leading textbook publisher, has published more than 50 books by Western academics and 200 more are in the pipeline. "The Chinese Edition of World Teaching Material Collection project aims to publish leading Western textbooks in Chinese with local adaptation," says Liu Zhipeng, the president of HEP. This means adding Chinese examples and case studies and cutting out areas that are not relevant. In finance management, for instance, some aspects of the Western economic system might not be appropriate for China. Chinese academics work with the original textbook to ensure it is viable for the Chinese market.

HEP, which sold 130 billion textbooks last year, is expanding the number of academic journals it publishes. In 2004, it went into partnership with Springer Science and Business Media, and last year published journals on 12 subjects. This year, there will be more. It is also publishing monographs and textbooks by Chinese academics in English for an international readership. The main focus is on maths, physics, electronics and engineering, in which China has strengths. One book already published, in partnership with Thomson Learning, is Essentials of Life Science . Its author, Wu Jinghu, says the book "provides a different perspective from Western textbooks in that besides its content it also teaches students to pursue the true meaning of life, the spirit of scientific humanity. It is about learning to understand knowledge." He says this is done by including examples of his own research experience alongside case studies and additional reading advice to help the student to understand how to research and "how they should feel about science".

HEP is one of a number of Chinese publishing houses that have developed links with international publishing firms over the past ten years or so after China acceded to international copyright conventions.

According to Mark Robertson, Asia president of Blackwell Publishing, which has agreements with a number of organisations in China to publish English-language journals, the key growth areas are science, social sciences such as law and accounting, and medicine. He says that, due to economic growth, China is now experiencing a rise in Western-type diseases such as diabetes and cardiovascular problems.

"There is a significant demand from the Chinese market for research and information on these issues, and we can only expect this demand to grow further in the near future," he says.

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