Haiqiang Zeng looked like a would- be Prime Minister when he won the Mandarin division of the China Open Debating Championship with his partner, Hao Zhuo, on Sunday afternoon. In British style, 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.
Zeng, an undergraduate at Sichuan University, was competing with more than 250 other students at the championship in the North East city of Qinhuangdao. 48 teams took part in Mandarin, while 84 registered for the English championship.
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 included: 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? And yes - should China legalise pornography? (This was the topic that led to the longest conversations on the bus)
But this is China’s new generation; finding out about the world on the internet and hooking up on social networking sites (despite the difficulties this sometimes poses) Outspoken about why debate is good: “This is a critical moment for China, and we have to develop critical thinking,” said a young law student. “Only controversial topics are meaningful now, because only debating controversial topics will push China to develop as a society, ” added a marketing undergraduate.
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, discussions can play out because 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 some China-thinkers would have us believe are all absorbed in their ipods and fluorescent trainers, and Nike t-shirts - taking advantage of economic growth, not interested in
politics. Politics aside, the students at the China Open are engaged with society, and the future of their country. Chief adjudicator for the Mandarin division, Yang Ge, told the students at the final
gathering: “You are smart, you are quick and you are going to rock the world.”
Lin Song Jia and Yang Da Jiang from the University of Macau were the winning team in the English division.