One of the more popular debates in the UK at the moment is immigration. A direct comparison with China is irrelevant as there is considerable contrast between those coming to Britain and those arriving in Beijing from outside China. There is a big difference not only in their relative wealth, but also on their relative impacts on public services and the job market.
However, there is one area that strikes me as worthy of discussion - the ability of the non-native residents to speak the local language.
It is hard to imagine trying to get by in the UK without English. As English is the global language, the majority of those in British shops and businesses do not speak anything other than English. There's precious little you can achieve in the country beyond tourism if you do not speak English.
But it's a different picture in Beijing of course. All signs here are in both Chinese and English and English is commonly heard among educated residents teaching their children. Rudimentary English is spoken by a great number of service industry staff.
English can be found in every region of life within Beijing, thus it's quite possible to get by without Chinese. Some expatriates hardly use Chinese at all.
They work in an English environment, live in foreign-dominated residential complexes, eat in the city's large variety of international restaurants and read about current affairs in English language newspapers. Indeed, it is entirely possible to live in Beijing and not speak a word of the local language. That said, the fact that you can function in Beijing's society on limited-to-no Chinese doesn't mean that you should.
It's hard to suggest that Beijing is like some in the UK, where there's a growing perception that residents from other countries have deliberately ghettoized themselves in certain areas, infrequently interacting with British society, rejecting the nation's values and refusing integration.
A large number of expatriates in Beijing are active members of the Beijing community, getting involved with Chinese culture at every opportunity despite their language skills lagging behind.
Naturally this excludes tourists and other short-term residents - you cannot expect such people to study the language deeply in every country they visit. But it does seem somewhat ignorant in my mind to live for a protracted period here without picking up a fair quantity of the language.
Mandarin isn't the easiest of languages in the world to learn. Some even suggest it may be the most difficult. Regardless, it seems unbelievable to me that you can live in a country for a couple of years or more without learning at least some of the language. The environment may allow you to get away with just English at times, but knowing Chinese as well could be so useful.
In the local supermarket, it is not uncommon to see an American attempting to speak English to the staff or being completely unaware of the most basic of conversational necessities, such as "Would you like a bag?" and the appropriate response.
At the bare minimum, some conversational Chinese could get that person something to carry their groceries home in, but they easily could manage so much more. Items are massively cheaper when you shop in the more exclusively Chinese shops and unless you're exceedingly wealthy (lucky for some), this is a considerable bonus.
You could even make new local friends - you cannot truly immerse yourself in a culture until you've discovered the basics of its language.
The characters and tones may seem daunting, but the grammar and vocabulary is surprisingly simple once you can see past that. A few hours a week could be all that's necessary to start seeing tangible results.
In the brief amount of time I've spent here, I've managed to grasp some of the basics of the language and already I'm reaping the rewards - so can you.
(China Daily by Edward Mills July 22, 2010)