Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Some reflections from China

As many of you know, I was just in China for 10 days at the FLTRP Cup, a national debating competition in English, sponsored by the Foreign Language Teaching and Research Press. While this was the 14th year that the competition has been run, it was the first time that it took place in the BP format. I decided to jot down a few thoughts on the competition and some of the wider issues surrounding it while they were still fresh in my mind.

The debates

One of the questions that was in my mind before going to the competition was ‘how free will people be to make arguments’. Not knowing much about domestic Chinese policy, this was a bit of a mystery to me. One of the most surprising and rewarding parts of the whole experience for me was the argumentative freedom that the students expressed. Sometimes this was to my own political leanings; I saw the top room in a round about immediate elections in Thailand, where the prop teams made some excellent arguments about the mandate that a government requires from the people in order to be legitimate. In another round, while not to my political liking, I heard another fantastic argument. In a debate about banning online groups from publishing the personal information of those who have transgressed morally, the speaker explained how law was a reflection of people’s desires, and sometimes the law took a while to catch up with the views of the people, so there must be room for a certain level of extra-judicial space. So far, so seemingly liberal. However, she rounded out the argument with the example that ‘most people in China think adulterers should be put to death, but the law doesn’t respect that yet’. While it’s not an outcome I’m personally in any way comfortable with, it did make me realise that it was the exact same argument as one that I would have found incredibly persuasive with a liberal example, and it still received good reward in the debate!

Overall the quality of the competition was a pleasant surprise. In judging a semi and watching the final, I, and those around me, felt that the standard was similar to that which would be present at any international competition, with clever, sophisticated argumentation. (There was one really interning argument in favour of banning child athletes which drew an analogy to child soldiers, for example). At the lower levels of the competition, there was an over-reliance on is/ ought fallacies (‘China has a Confucian ethic, therefore it should), but that was no different from what you often see in similar debates elsewhere with new debaters. The training the teams had done in March had clearly paid off, and given that it was the first competition in BP for many of the debaters, it really was remarkable how good they were.

One of the other really noticeable things about the competition was the level and quality of female participation. A recent leader in The Economist discussed the idea of gendercice and presented the frightening face of a preference for male children in China and other developing countries. However, at this competition, however unrepresentative it may be, a different picture emerged. Talented female students were clearly given every opportunity to shine, and took it with aplomb. For many of the foreign adjudicators the women were seen to consistently outshine the men, and it forced us to ask questions about the level of participation and success of women in our own circuits. While I have no intention of rehashing the debate that recently raged in the IONA circuit, I think it is worth nothing that the success and participation of women in China shows what most believe to be the case anyway: there is no innate reason why women either participate less or are less successful in debating.

Scale & impact

One of the most striking things about the competition was its scale, both in terms of the number of participants, and the ambition of the organisers. Universities were limited to one team each, and there were 128 teams taking part. That means that there were teams from 128 different universities at the competition from all over China. The organisers had clearly put a huge amount of effort into the competition, with all team’s transportation and accommodation covered in order to facilitate their participation. While BP debating in China is still relatively new, this competition switching over to the format was already making waves. The work of people like Steve Johnson (CA of this competition) Lok Wing Fat (who has run countless workshops in the country) and many others are creating a national impetus towards BP.

I chatted with several coaches from Chinese universities about their desire to set up regional competitions in order to help them prepare more for the national championships. When it comes to international debating, China have already started to make an impact, for example, Tsinghua University winning the inaugural EFL section at Vancouver Worlds in 2007. However, their full impact is yet to be felt. For me, this shows the enormous success that the BP format has had in creating an international debating format. However, it also highlights the Worlds community’s enormous challenge in figuring out how Worlds should function with an ever-increasing number of people wishing to take part. As Gregg O’Neill noted recently, the failure of the Future of Worlds subcommittee was an enormous disappointment. With so many of these debaters clearly harbouring ambitions of partaking in the championships, and a natural limit to the size the competition can be run at annually and sustainably, questions must be asked about how these problems can be overcome while still having a representative worlds that achieves its stated purpose – finding the best debating team in the world.


The competition had a large number of subsidised foreign adjudicators. While I was a little worried initially that this could come across as ‘foreigners come to teach the Chinese how to do things’, this really wasn’t the way in panned out at all. This was due to two things. Firstly, the students and coaches were very receptive to the experience and opinions of people who were experienced with the format and looked to learn as much as possible from them. The second thing was the approach taken by the CA team to promote and involve as many of the quality local judges as possible which saw a gradual shift towards more locally based judging as the competition progressed. If the level of funding for the competition is around the same again next year, then I’d imagine there will be travel opportunities for many of the people who would be reading this.

I would not hesitate to recommend the competition for a moment. It was an incredibly rewarding experience that really reminded me of why I enjoy judging and coaching students. People were eager to learn, there was a freshness to many of the arguments and the standard was genuinely impressive. Add into the mix a wonderful group of international judges, tasty, cheap local cuisine, and two days touring Beijing after the competition and you really can’t go wrong!