The Great Debate: The Chinese Teens Learning How to Argue... in English

By Dominique Wong, October 12, 2017

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“Where is the money going to come from?” a Chinese teenager shouts.

“The government can print more money!” her opponent replies fervently.

It’s day one of the National High School Debate League Competition (NHSDLC) championship, and two high schools students are arguing over whether the US should implement a Universal Basic Income, in a high school classroom in west Beijing, in English.

They are just two of the nearly 500 students participating in the biggest English debate league competition in China, from places as far-flung as Ningxia and Liaoning. For these young people, it’s the culmination of months of research and success in regional tournaments.

The championship is a long weekend. Teens cram on seats between endless debates, their parents waiting anxiously nearby. Almost 100 judges assess eight-odd debates each day, with additional staff tabulating the results. Dressed smartly in shirts and suits, teenagers carry laptops worth thousands of RMB and plastered with stickers reading “I CAN’T KEEP CALM, I’M A DEBATER.”

With some of the brightest – and wealthiest – kids in China forming arguments in their non-native language, the finals are mind-boggling. I watch teens far more eloquent and smarter than I ever was at their age (and, in some cases, am now).

Participants attend China Debate Association’s inaugural Beijing Women’s Debate Challenge (image by Zhou Weizhen)

Split into two divisions – one for ESL students, the other, an  ‘international’ one for both ESL and international school students – the championship brings together teenagers from every province in China. 

There are kids from experimental and international schools as well as public high schools. Some speak immaculate English, others less so. But all have invested the time and money into learning how to debate.

Organized debate sees teams taking sides on a topic, conducting research beforehand and arguing their position in front of a judge. It’s a well-established hobby in the US and UK. And while Chinese-language debate does exist – although usually in a different format – it’s English-language debate that’s currently most prestigious among China’s elites.

Now, NHSDLC and other debate organizations are exposing Chinese teens to completely new forms of expression. Yet, issues of inequality, and clashes with China’s traditional educational system, remain.

As recently as five years ago, high school leagues of this scale didn’t exist in China, according to NHSDLC president David Weeks. “There wasn’t an eco-system in China. There’s a lot of Chinese debate that goes on, but it’s run on an ad hoc basis, by schools or municipal governments.”

NHSDLC is now the largest foreign language debate league in the world. More than 15,000 students compete annually in over 75 NHSDLC tournaments across China.

Employers don’t want their employees to be good at arguing. I’ve had experiences where potential employers were like, are you a very aggressive person and like to fight a lot?

“We’re not teaching kids to shout at each other. We’re trying to teach them a little more nuance than that,” says Charles Barton, a visiting judge from a prestigious US college (hint: it rhymes with ‘kale’). “A couple of rounds ago, I judged a team that said the [Universal Basic Income] is good because loggers would be able to get an income without working and so they would stop cutting down trees. So, the UBI would stop climate change. That was an [imaginative] one.”

Debate is surging in popularity, league president Weeks tells me as results are tallied. In the past, he says, “there were a handful of schools that did [English debate], like Xi Jinping’s daughter’s high school. It’s mostly an elite activity, but it’s making its way down to more grassroots levels.”

Weeks says the increase in popularity is partly because more wealthy Chinese students are going abroad at younger ages and enrolling in international schools.

But it’s not always for prestige. Taijia International Education, a private education consultant institute in Beijing, introduced a debate program last year to boost students’ confidence, school founder Julia Zhao says.

“Chinese students are more introverted. They know a lot, but it’s hard for them to communicate.”

Judges consider the merits of a debater’s speech (image by Dominique Wong)

Most of the teens I meet at the national competition hope to attend university overseas and see debate as a good way to differentiate themselves in their college applications. But for others, debate goes beyond a “resume checkbox,” as Weeks calls it. It offers them the chance to gain critical thinking and creative skills – skills that some say China’s education system neglects.

During a break at the NHSDLC finals I chat with Jiangsu public school debaters Wang and Zhang in the school’s main foyer. They see debate as an alternative to Jiangsu’s – and to a certain extent, China’s – harsh education system. The two start dropping truth bombs like: “China’s education system is rubbish.” (“You can write your article about this,” Wang says.)

Zhang elaborates on what they mean: “You’re just educated on what the teacher says. They give a lecture and you take it all in without even thinking about whether it’s right or wrong. And even if you have other thoughts, these won’t get you a higher score in the gaokao [university entrance exam], so there’s no point.”

Wang, meanwhile, sees debate as a chance to break out of his bubble. “NHSDLC is awesome because we now have contact with all these people who are going abroad,” he says. “Whereas at our high school, we wouldn’t have had the chance.”

Wang explains that many of the students at the championship are either from an international school, or an international program at a public school. “But we aren’t. Some of these students have studied abroad for years.”

This difference gives international students a clear language advantage, which is demonstrated in their presentation and ability to formulate quick replies.

Wang’s debate partner Zhang agrees. “I know what I want to say, and it might be a better idea, but I can’t…” Zhang stumbles.

“Express it?” I offer.

“…Express it very clearly. I was thinking about that word. That’s why we get stuck in the debate sometimes. But my English has gotten much better since I joined debate,” Zhang says. “At our school they only teach you grammar, words or how to write some short sentences.”

Biing-biing-biing. A bell rings and the boys head off to their next debate.

Public school students are particularly driven, Weeks says. “To take on extra work on top of their average homework load takes something special. We notice really, really motivated kids from public schools.”

But the effects of gaokao-style learning are obvious when working with Chinese students, says former debate coach Aaron Kruse. With a decade’s worth of debate experience in the US and China, Kruse has coached and judged students from both countries.

There’s inequality in the debate community in the US, but nowhere near as much as in China. It’s extraordinarily unequal

“I’ve found that a lot of Chinese students want to go straight to the bottom of [an argument]. They think that, in the end, one side definitely has it right,” Kruse says over a beer one evening. “But I try to teach them a process about thinking about arguments in general, not just in this argument.”

Yet there are areas where these Chinese students excel, Kruse says, in particular, research, rewriting and revision.

Ultimately, Kruse is effusive about China’s young debaters. “They’re not doing it in their native language and they’re also rocking 4.0 [grade point averages]. People who succeed at [debate] in China will go on to do awesome stuff because they’re determined.

“I feel bad as a judge, writing ‘you could have done this thing better,’ when I’m like, Jesus, I couldn’t have done any of this.”

Although past winners of NHSDLC’s national championship have come from all over China, from Shenyang and Chongqing to Guangzhou (“Beijing has never won it,” Weeks says, amused), certain areas tend to excel at debating more than others.

While cities like Shanghai and Beijing have the numbers, schools in cities like Guangzhou and Tianjin supported debate from its early stages, thus building up a strong community.

Accompanying her daughter at the finals tournament, Tianjin parent Hu Zhijie says: “Debate teaches children to have more points of view. It’s a great activity. Besides, [my daughter] likes debating.”

Yet, many regions lack adequate resources and funds to even enter the debate arena, let alone compete, thus turning debate into a moneyed pursuit. American debater Kruse says: “There’s inequality in the debate community in the US, but nowhere near as large as it is in China. It’s extraordinarily unequal.”

Two teams prepare to debate each other

The gap between regions is apparent at the NHSDLC finals. On the third day, I watch a debate featuring partners Hu and He. Speaking in a measured British accent – an anomaly in a sea of American English – Hu argues that a UBI frees people “from the stigma of poverty. A vote for pro is a vote for progress.”

It’s eloquent and affecting. It’s also the Kunming team’s 11th round in the last couple of days, Hu tells me. According to his debate partner, He, the two are the only students from Yunnan province to compete in the finals.

“Kunming isn’t a strong debate area. Shanghai is really intimidating because they've got tons of students from the same school. We don’t have a coach, so we do all of our own research,” Hu says.

NHSDLC’s parent company, Sunrise International Education, is trying to correct this imbalance. The company offers free training sessions to any school that asks for them. A former coach at Sunrise, Kruse recalls taking part in the group’s outreach program.

“One time I had to take a long-distance bus from outside Rizhao in Shandong province to Laizhou, which is a tiny town, near the coast. The bus dropped me off outside [Laizhou] and I had to hitch a ride into town in a suit. I’m the only foreigner within miles of this place, and I was like, this is the smallest place I’ve ever been.

“[But] the kids turn out in droves to see you. Some of them are playing on their phones and don’t give a sh*t, but to reach some kids, for even an hour [is invaluable],” Kruse says.

“Every single student in the middle of Rizhao had the opportunity, once in his or her life, to stand up and use English to argue with somebody about a topic. That might be the extent of their interaction with debate, but it’s more than they ever would have had before.”

There are other organizations trying to make debate more open. China Debate Association, for instance, targets university students. The recently formed group aims to make events more accessible by setting lower entry costs, says co-founder and experienced debater Wei Xinyue. “Overall the [university] tournaments in China are becoming really expensive. I don’t know where the money goes.”

CDA’s inaugural competition was the Beijing Women’s Debate Challenge. Held at the beginning of July, the one-day event was a mere RMB100 to enter and included debates and workshops on themes related to women and feminism (as well as a meal and goody bag). The event was a success, and CDA hopes to hold a similar one in Shanghai later this year.

Debaters shake hands after a combative round

The organization also aims to increase debaters’ career opportunities in China. “In other countries, debate is a prestigious activity. But not in China,” Wei says. “In Asian cultures, employers don’t want their employees to be good at arguing. I’ve had experiences where [potential employers] were like, are you a very aggressive person and like to fight a lot? This is a misunderstanding about what debate is.”

Pop culture may also have a hand in lessening these misunderstandings. Now in its fourth year, iQiyi show Qi Pa Shuo (also known as U Can U Bibi) sees Chinese celebrities debate a range of topics in a talk-show fashion. The program is a hit with Chinese audiences, racking up more than 300 million views in its second season, according to the blog What’s on Weibo.

Once you get past the blatant product placement of yoghurt cartons atop every desk and the sentimental background music, it is, in essence, individuals speaking about an issue in front of a judge.

Although Wei laments the show’s subjects, which skew towards emotions rather than current events – like whether people should believe in love at first sight – she admits that the show is helpful in the wider scheme of promoting debate.

“People start to understand more about debating – they see it’s not about fighting with each other. It’s about understanding key issues.”

Back at the NHSDLC championship, the three-day event ends with a ceremony held in the school auditorium. A line of clear, sparkling trophies sits atop a long table on the stage. Music that sounds like it was ripped from the climax of a Disney film booms triumphantly.

The debaters with the highest speaking scores in the international division are announced (mostly boys, up until the third-best) and a team from Shanghai wins. The runners-up are also from Shanghai. But all the students congratulate each other, taking selfies on stage and shaking each other’s hands afterwards. 

Images by Gui Zixuan and Yan Jing

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