In connection with the ABC Chinese-English dictionary database which they wanted to buy, I had some dealings with Microsoft in China about 15 years ago. Already then, their internal language in the Beijing and Shanghai offices was English. Around the same time, I also had contact with several other major companies in China where the situation was exactly the same.
To go back even much further than the time I alluded to in that comment, more than three decades ago, around the early to mid-80s, China was a very different place from what it is now. Streets were narrow, there were innumerable bicycles but no private cars, frogs were still croaking in rice fields in the Pudong district of Shanghai (where now soar some of the world's tallest buildings), the built-up area around Peking University called Zhongguancun was — as its name implies — still a dusty village, and nearby Haidian — now China's Silicon Valley — was an even sleepier place.
I remember — as one of the most poignant experiences of my life — running into a Boston College biochemistry professor in the Lanzhou airport and having a fascinating conversation about language with him. In those days, Lanzhou was still very much a far western, backward backwater in the poor province of Gansu. I went to Lanzhou often to visit the museum, the university, and scholars there, but more importantly because it was where I caught the smoky steam train to Dunhuang even farther west, some 500 kilometers away at the other end of the narrow province, and Dunhuang was where the manuscripts I spent the first 20 years of my scholarly career working on came from.
In those days, the Lanzhou airport was far from the then thin, long city that stretched for more than 60 kilometers along the banks of the Yellow River. My recollection is that we had to drive a couple of hours along isolated, unpopulated roads leading into the loessial uplands where the airport was located on a dry, barren plateau. The terminal was little more than a shed, quite unlike today's sprawling edifice through which fly millions of passengers every year.
There was only one other passenger in the waiting room, and the plane to Beijing (or perhaps Xi'an) was not due to fly out for an hour or two, so we had time for a good chat. The Boston College biochemistry professor was in China to give lectures at various universities. I think that he had grown up in Taiwan, and like tens of thousands of other students from Taiwan, had gone to America for his higher education and ended up teaching there for the next few decades. But he was also a patriotic Chinese, so — again like countless other academics and researchers with a background similar to his — he had an intense desire to transfer American technological expertise to China, so that explains why he made so many extended trips back to China (very different from me, who made scores of trips to China to learn about that nation's past).
I asked the BC professor how his lectures were going, and he told me that he found it extremely frustrating to talk about his specialty in Chinese. In those days, the level of English knowledge was still minimal in most sectors of the population, including in the universities. He told me that he spent most of his time just trying to convey in Mandarin the meaning of essential technical terms in English. It often ended up that, in essence, he was serving both as a fund of information about biochemistry and also as a teacher of technical English vocabulary.
Being the incorrigible language enthusiast that I am, I asked him if he was successful in coming up with suitable Mandarin equivalents for all the biochemical terms that were his daily fare in English. He confessed that he found that to be utterly impossible when what he was really trying to teach his Chinese colleagues and students were the complex biochemical phenomena that he taught and did research on every day when he was back in America. So he basically stuck to using English for the most specific, technical terms to describe those phenomena, and his Chinese colleagues and students simply had to learn them.
That's just one field in which technical and linguistic transfer were going on simultaneously. It was happening in virtually every field of science and technology, and in later decades it happened in the social sciences and the humanities as well. During the 80s, even in remote places like Xinjiang, I met Western aeronautical engineers, geologists, botanists, zoologists, and other scientists and technicians who were engaged in this massive transmission of information from the West and the language through which it was conveyed.
My encounter with the Boston College biochemist in the Lanzhou airport in the early 80s would have been remarkable enough just as I have described it above. What makes it even more amazing is that he was my sister-in-law's adviser.