This paper focuses on the construction of the linguistic contents of the junior secondary school syllabus and national textbooks in the People’s Republic of China, from which the official English promoted by the state can be identified. Using quantitative and qualitative data, the paper analyses the nature of this official English in five distinct historical phases. It finds that the English curriculum in the different phases was linked to shifting national economic and political priorities, as evidenced by the attention to structured pedagogical approaches that focus on communication during times of economic modernisation and openness to the outside world, and by the stress on political and moral messages during times of hyper politicisation and relative international isolation. English is constructed for its economic and political utility, based on an exogenous model, British English. It is not officially constructed to reflect an endogenous variety of Chinese English. Copyright © 2002 John Benjamins Publishing Company.