Debating in China – Public Forum

When I arrived in China, I was offered all sorts of part-time work. Most of it was tutoring gigsā€”it paid well, but it was not always the most rewarding way to earn extra cash.

Some people develop other side hustles. Some model:

Some bake:

Some provide personal training:

Some become photographers:

There are many options for a side hustle. However, I was looking for something that I could enjoy, and tutoring wasn’t it. I knew plenty of people doing classes most nights and making significant amounts of money, but they didn’t have much free time. I still wanted to have a life.

In 2015, I got a message on LinkedIn asking if I was interested in judging a debate tournament in Shenzhen. This piqued my interest, and while the pay was not particularly good compared to tutoring, it was something I wanted to try.

The organization was the National High School Debate League of China (NHSDLC). The other major organization running debates in China is the National Speech and Debate Association (NSDA). I’ve judged for both of them, and they are both excellent organizations. They run highly organized tournaments every semester, as well as end-of-year championships. The COVID era forced them online, to which everyone adjusted with aplomb.

What is Public Form Debate?

Public Forum Debate is a style of debate that I was unfamiliar with when I came to China.

However, as a former amateur debater, it wasn’t hard to work it out.

Speaking times for Public Forum Debate

This is the easiest way for people to think about the debate format. NHSDLC run their structure slightly differently, with an extra minute for the first speeches and shorter preparation time (2 minutes for NHSDLC and 3 minutes for NSDA).

The other significant difference in this form of debate is that the topic is well-known in advance. Teams will prepare for both sides of the issue, as they may debate both sides throughout a tournament. They may prepare multiple arguments and blocks. The teams for and against the case are determined by tossing a coin at the start of each debate. The Pro side is not necessarily the team that speaks first.

What sort of issues are debated in China?

Now, people may think that China would be stringent on what sort of topics can be debated. However, given that it is an academic competition, there is some added flexibility given.

At the same time, the organizers are aware of the sensitivities of operating in China.

With that in mind, topics have included issues as diverse as:

  • Pricing of pharmaceuticals;
  • Carbon taxes in China;
  • China’s role in Israel and Palestine;
  • The necessity of the International Monetary Fund;
  • Affirmative action in the United States;
  • Urbanization in China;
  • Social media;
  • The necessity of the United Nations;
  • Afghanistan;
  • Violent crime; and
  • Energy subsidies.

In general, if an issue might be sensitive to China, the organizers make a specific point to select a case as far from China as possible. It’s a sensible approach to take overall. Having said that, students may opt to take certain approaches to issues that are not so… “appropriate.” However, there’s nothing to be done about that; that’s their choice.

How much have I done?

By my rough maths, I’ve judged over 300 debates over six years or so.

I’ve judged tournaments in Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Zhuhai, Xiamen, Hangzhou, Changsha, and Beijing. I’ve also judged some speech competitions as part of that and some online tournaments that otherwise would have taken place in Kunshan, Shenzhen, Guangzhou, and Shanghai.

In my mind, this is civic-minded side-hustle. Yes, it takes up a whole weekend, and I could earn a lot more money doing other things. However, I’m enjoying it – and that’s the most important thing for me. There are plenty of ways to earn lots of money, but to enjoy it… that’s a different question.

For me, I want to listen to students in China use their critical thinking skills as best they can. I should probably point out that they are debating in English. There are Chinese debate competitions, but from what I understand, they are entirely different. I believe that they focus more on philosophy and the like.

The most recent debate

I’ve finished judging a tournament in Guangzhou over the weekend on the topic of social media. The students provided some interesting thoughts on the matter, including A, B, and C.

What do you think about debating? Should it be a compulsory subject for students? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!


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