How many foreign languages should a civil servant be able to speak?
A party chief in southwest China's city of Kunming has given the answer: Five.
"All civil servants under the age of 50 in Kunming should be able to master 300 English sentences, 100 Vietnamese sentences, 100 Burmese sentences, 100 Lao sentences and 100 Thai sentences before the end of 2010," said Qiu He, secretary of Kunming's municipal committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC).
The requirement announced in July has sparked a nationwide debate about its necessity.
Many netizens on bbs.people.com.cn, a popular Chinese Internet forum, dismissed this program, saying it's not only unnecessary but also impractical for the civil servants to acquire five foreign languages in about one and a half years.
A netizen named "yum111" says in his blog on ifeng.com that he has studied Burmese for two years, but is still unable to communicate with Burmese.
Despite the cynical view, Qiu insists that the language skills will be an essential to assess civil servants' annual work for this year.
"The municipal CPC committee will dispatch staff to check up on the learning progress before the National Day on Oct.1," he said.
He explained that civil servants with language skills can contribute to improving the province's business ties with Southeast Asian countries under the framework of China-ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) free trade zone.
Zhang Xiaoming, the Deputy Director in the Office of Overseas Chinese Affairs in Kunming, said the office has been involved in drafting some of the teaching materials for the civil servants' language learning courses.
"We have invited some foreign diplomats to help dub the sentences, mostly daily-use phrases, such as greeting, toasting, and showing apology and gratitude," he said.
He said the training course would also offer some basic knowledge about the history, politics, culture and economy of the target countries, which could help learners to better understand the language environment in ASEAN countries.
"I mainly speak English, when I participated in foreign affairs activities. But I found the distance between foreign officials and me was reduced when I spoke one or two sentences in their mother tongue," said Li.
He said the municipal committee required staff in such departments like the Office of Foreign Affairs, Bureau of Commerce, and Investment Promotion Bureau to grasp the foreign languages at higher levels than others through the course training, since these people may have more opportunities to communicate with people from ASEAN countries in work.
Some civil servants have been worried about the new requirement.
"It would take a lot of our spare time, which has already been squeezed by heavy work," said several government workers, who declined to be named.
However, Zhang Wei, who works in a communications company said, "Many civil servants have stable jobs and satisfactory salaries. It's better for them to study than waste time in eating and drinking. The language program may work to put them under some pressure."
Jin Ziqiang, a sociology professor in Yunnan University, agreed the opinion saying civil servants should spend more time on improving themselves.
A similar English training program was launched in Kunming in 1999 when the World Horticulture Exposition was held here. It triggered a great upsurge in interest for English studies. But now, many civil servants have lost that sense of urgency.
The Office of Overseas Chinese Affairs in Kunming found the city has a big market shortfall for language talent, especially for those who can speak small languages in ASEAN countries.
This was also cited by the official Qiu as one of the reasons to set the language requirement.
Qiu has given top priority of his work to introduce investment to Kunming since he came into office in December, 2007.
Kunming is one of the poorest provincial capitals in China with its GDP of 140 billion yuan in 2007, ranking 21 among the 23 provincial capitals, he said.
In May this year, the city government recruited 40 doctors of economics on positions in key functional departments in efforts to upgrade the civil servant team.