China Debates....

February 13, 2010

I’ve just returned from China, after a gap of about 16 years, and I met these undergraduates – coming together to do British Parliamentary debating on June 3rd and 4th ( quite an anniversary for the Chinese…)

“Legalising all pornography would be wrong, it would lead to more rape and unnatural sex, I commend this measure to the house. ” Haiqiang Zeng is a would be Prime Minister. He has the David Cameron leg thrust at the dispatch box, the Gordon Brown hand chop and, at key moments, a special samba-like hand roll of his very own.

Zeng is an undergraduate at Sichuan University, and while most other students in China are burdened with the heavy exam loads on the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square uprising, Zeng is competing with 300 others in the China Open debating championship in Qinhuangdao, run by IDEA (The International Debate Educational Association).

While traditional Chinese debating takes on more philosophical topics, the China Open competitors have been cutting and thrusting across the dispatch box in a manner more commonly seen in the Oxford Union. Motions include: Should the children of government officials be banned from public jobs? Would Chinese universities be more competitive if they were privatised? Should China stop subsidising labour intensive industry? Put condom machines in schools? And yes – should China legalise porn? In British Parliamentary style they propose a motion as ‘Prime Minister’ and oppose as ‘Leader of the Opposition’. Its fair to say that when Chairman Mao infamously commanded: ‘Let a hundred flowers blossom, and let a hundred schools of thought contend’ this was not what he had in mind. (Although that phrase in the 1950s led to a crackdown).

But this is China’s new generation, finding ways around internet censorship, hooking up on Facebook despite the government’s best efforts to stop them, and outspoken: “This is a critical moment for China, and we have to develop critical thinking,” says a young law student. “Only controversial topics are meaningful now,” says a marketing undergraduate, “because only debating controversial topics will push China to develop as a society.” The kind of critical analysis, and logical assessment of arguments is not something they find in school, or with their parents: “Only in this setting do we get chance to discuss and think about these things, it widens our world.” In the safe format of debate they are assigned a role, and can talk about topics while genuinely claiming that the position they take is not necessarily their own.

These are the teenagers the government, and even western academics and China-thinkers would have us believe are all absorbed in their ipods and fluorescent trainers, and Nike t-shirts – taking advantage of economic growth and happy with China’s different model of development. So should this model of debate spread to other people and parts of China? One girl falls silent, “I don’t know how to answer that question.”

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