Treading Carefully: Debate Topic Selection in China

David Weeks and Zhang Chengming
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This article explores the tricky question of how one navigates debate topic selection within the People’s Republic of China.

 

Introduction

High school debate topic selection is a challenging balancing act; debate topics must generate interesting, academically-centred debates, without crossing political red lines or prodding emotional scars. This article contends that, in countries with closed political systems such as China, some topics of a political nature are either banned or exceptionally ill-advised, whereas topics pertaining to social issues often deemed too inflammatory, particularly in the United States, are acceptable.

The political and social context of any debate event must influence topic selection. This article will focus on topic selection in high school debating circuits in the People’s Republic of China, highlighting the major differences in topic selection outcomes in China and the United States. The article will first discuss generalised criteria in selecting a debate topic. It will then analyse the limitations imposed by China’s socio-political context, followed by a discussion of the areas in which topic selection is less constrained in the Chinese context.

It is important to note that this article does not purport to be a comprehensive review of the status of debate or topic selection in any particular country, but instead is grounded in the experiences of the authors as high school debate league officials in mainland China.

 

Factors for Consideration in Topic Selection

It is generally accepted that good debate topics possess a handful of attributes. They must be academic, relevant, balanced, and palatable to observers and members of the general public.

First, debate topics must be distinctly academic and reward preparation work and strong background knowledge about world affairs. Debate topics must relate to some academic discipline, because debate teams and tournaments are often affiliated with academic departments high schools or universities. It is difficult to justify using departmental resources for something not obviously academic in nature.

Moreover, topics need to be relevant, both to the current events of the day and to the lives of the participants. Topics that are reducible to descriptive or historical statements feel overly semantic at best and trivial at worst. Topics that directly connect to the daily lives of participants or their families usually inspire passion and assist recruitment. If one wants to see impassioned debates, rather than chess games played with words, participants need to feel that there is something at stake in the debate.

Topics must also be balanced; there must be some measure of reciprocity between the affirmative and negative sides. Topics that favour one side skew the results of the tournament, often creating an unnatural concentration of participants in the middle of the pool rather than a more natural bell curve. Topics must be reciprocal, both in terms of the burden structure and the quality and quantity of substantive arguments. The burden of proof for each side should be roughly equivalent; all things being equal, if the affirmative must prove three statements and the negative only one, then the topic is likely to be structurally unfair. Time constraints and the burden of rebuttal will generate an unnaturally high number of negative wins. Topics must also have a measure of reciprocity in terms of substantive ground: the quality of arguments on each side should be comparable. It is particularly difficult to write topics with this kind of reciprocity in mind, because it is difficult to measure the quality of an argument without taking for granted a particular set of beliefs or assumptions.

Finally, topics need to be accessible and palatable to observers and members of the general public. Debate programs and tournaments depend on givers of various kinds: corporations, academic departments, student activities committees, parents, and alumni. Many of these donors do not possess technical debating knowledge or skills, and they may not be familiar with esoteric debates inside particular academic or legal fields.

 

Red Lines and Grey Areas: Political Limitations on Debate Topics in China

In countries with closed political systems (such as China), organisers and league officials must develop topics with an awareness of the political context in which they operate.  In China, debate flourishes when it is cast as a mechanism for global cultural and academic exchange, as an opportunity for students to flourish as creative, self-expressive learners. On the other hand, debate organisations, particularly foreign-based ones, face difficulties when they cast themselves as vehicles or proselytisers of particular political or religious ideologies. 1, XUE XI SHI BAO [STUDY TIMES], http://www.chinaelections.org/NewsInfo.asp?NewsID=94532. ]

In order to be seen as an avenue for genuine educational exchange rather than proselytisation, debate organisations must recognize two categories of sensitive issues: “red lines” that very few actors in China can openly cross and “grey area” topics that are uncomfortable to debate in China. Both lead to awkward or unsatisfying debate experiences. Both may trigger the cancellation of sponsorships or venues in more conservative institutions, and will almost certainly prevent any televised or national-level media coverage.

“Red lines” include the Tiananmen Square Incident of 1989 2, the independence of Taiwan, Xinjiang, or Tibet 3, a banned religious group called the Falun Gong 4, or a direct call for revolution or the fall of the Communist Party 5. Although these topics are sometimes discussed quietly in academic circles or among student debaters in closed lecture halls, such discussions certainly do not appear publicly and quickly “disappear” online on outlets such as Sina Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter. “Grey areas” include the Cultural Revolution or a negative evaluation of the historical legacy of Mao Zedong 6, high-level corruption 7, maritime disputes in the East China Sea 8, and the expansion of Japan’s military capabilities 9.

In the China, it is important to note that there are few official written rules concerning the content of political discussions. Rules are unwritten and dependent upon institutional and situational context. In particular, universities such as Peking University, Tsinghua University, Shanghai Jiaotong University, Fudan University, and a handful of institutions in Liaoning, Fujian, and Guangdong Province tend to be relatively progressive and more permissive of sensitive motions at the tournaments that they host or attend, whereas institutions in the west and far northeast of the country tend to be more conservative. 10 The language of the debate is also immensely important: debates taking place in English enjoy much more leeway in topic and argument selection, whereas debates taking place in Chinese often use very vague or abstract topics that are not of a directly political nature. 11

The involvement of the government in the tournament is also relevant: tournaments co-hosted by the Ministry of Education or co-sponsored by state-controlled media tend to be more conservative 12, whereas tournaments that are not televised or closely observed enjoy more freedom. The Communist Party also plays a role, since the Communist Youth League controls the approval process for student activities in all public education institutions. 13 For students without connections inside the Party, the Communist Youth League is immensely important if they hope to rise to power in China’s political system or in its vast galaxy of state-owned enterprises. 14

While some officials inside high schools and universities can override these dynamics, doing so requires considerable power and carries distinct risks.

 

Up for Debate: Social Issues in China

Given China’s reputation for scrutiny and censorship of cyberspace and the media, few may be surprised that there are political limitations on debate topic selection. On the other hand, some social issues that sometimes are too sensitive to discuss in the United States are more acceptable in China.

First, debates about abortion and euthanasia in China are acceptable and civil, whereas these debates in the United States tend to be emotionally charged and acrimonious. In the United States, high school leagues tend to avoid the abortion debate altogether. 15 It is an issue that sharply divides Americans: debates about the subject often invoke deeply-held religious convictions and core beliefs about privacy and the relationship between individuals and the state. The debate, when it happens at all, tends to be especially bitter, even compared to other divisive social issues. 16 Yet debates about abortion and euthanasia are far more civil in China: debaters maintain mutual respect and focus on substantive arguments made. This can be attributed to different beliefs and expectations about privacy, the absence of a large, politically active “religious right” in China 17, and the One Child Policy.

Second, debates about race relations and affirmative action policies are more palatable in China, particularly when compared to the United States. The Chinese government maintains affirmative action policies for the 55 officially recognised minority groups. These minorities are exempt from the One Child Policy and receive bonuses in applications for domestic university admission and employment at state-owned enterprises. 18 Debate and discussion about the virtues and drawbacks of the system are acceptable and civil, whereas such debates in the United States can be quite uncomfortable and often involves personal attacks. 19 These debates tend to be more bitter in the US, perhaps because the legacy of slavery and segregation complicate debates about racial politics, and because the ethnic composition of the US is rapidly changing, whereas China’s has been relatively constant over the past 20 years.

 

Conclusion

Debate topic selection is always challenging, since topics must combine depth, relevance, balance, and accessibility. In China, leagues and tournament organisers must think carefully about China’s discursive terrain. There are political red lines that one should not cross and grey areas that generally make for awkward or poor debates. On the other hand, social issues relating to abortion or racial politics are up for debate and tend to produce debates that are more reasoned and civil. China’s vibrant university debate circuit and it rapidly growing high school debate circuit, the National High School Debate League of China, demonstrate very clearly that debate flourishes when it adapts to cultural and political context.

  1. Deyong Yin, “China’s Attitude Toward Foreign NGOs,” Washington University Global Studies Law Review 8 (2009): 521, http://law.wustl.edu/WUGSLR/Issues/Volume8_3/Yin.pdf; Regulations on Foundation Administration (adopted by the St. Council, Feb. 4, 2004, effective June 1, 2004), art. 2, translated in LAWINFOCHINA (last visited Feb. 4, 2009) (P.R.C.). ; Liqing Zhao, Ru he kan dai zai Zhongguo de wai guo fei zheng fu zu zhi [How to Deal with Foreign NGOs in China
  2. A powerful example is that, on the eve of the 24th anniversary of Tiananmen, even the words “today” and “tomorrow” were banned from Sina Weibo searches, See Jonathan Kaiman, “Tiananmen Square Online Searches Censored by Chinese Authorities,” The Guardian, June 4, 2013, accessed November 15, 2013, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/jun/04/tiananmen-square-online-search-censored
  3. Sarah Cook, “The Long Shadow of Chinese Censorship,” Report to the Center for International Media Assistance,   October 22, 2013, accessed November 15, 2013, http://freedomhouse.org/sites/default/files/CIMA-China_Sarah%20Cook_10_22_13.pdf; Minami Funakoshi, “In Face of Mainland Censorship, Taiwanese Revisit Reunification Question,” The Atlantic Monthly, February 22, 2013, accessed November 15, 2013, http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2013/02/in-face-of-mainland-censorship-taiwanese-revisit-reunification-question/273415/
  4. Falun Gong and China’s Continuing War on Human Rights: Joint Hearing Before the Subcomm. on Africa, Global Human Rights and International Operations and the Subcomm. on Oversight and Investigations of the H. Comm. on Int’l Relations, 109th Cong. 49–50 (July 21, 2005) (Statement of Mr. Yonglin Chen, First Secretary and Consul for Political Affairs, Former Chinese Consulate, Sydney, Australia, Appendix 2) http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/CHRG-109hhrg22579/pdf/CHRG-109hhrg22579.pdf
  5. See note 4; committee to Protect Journalists, “China Detains, Censors Bloggers on ‘Jasmine Revolution’, February 24, 2011, accessed November 15, 2013 http://www.cpj.org/2011/02/china-detains-censors-bloggers-on-jasmine-revoluti.php;  Andrew Jacobs, “Catching Scent of Revolution, China Moves to Snip Jasmine,” The New York Times, May 10, 2011, accessed November 15, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/11/world/asia/11jasmine.html
  6. Tania Branigan and Ed Pilkington, “Ping Fu’s childhood tales of China’s cultural revolution spark controversy,” The Guardian, February 13, 2013, Accessed November 15, 2013, http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/feb/13/ping-fu-controversy-china-cultural-revolution; Tom Hancock, “China’s Political Past Displayed under Political Shadow”, AFP, November 3, 2013, accessed November 15, 2013 http://www.google.com/hostednews/afp/article/ALeqM5gsvcIrgRlslg0NqDqRh_jvQsxdpA?docId=CNG.8551f146b2f19c5aa70434d4b6f22864.ca1
  7. Although discussing corruption, particularly at lower and middle levels of government is quite common, publicly discussing high-level corruption is not wise. The New York Times and Bloomberg News have faced complete blockage in China for reporting on the wealth of China’s outbound Premier, Wen Jiabao and its new President, Xi Jinping. See Tania Branigan, “Wen Jiabao’s £1.68bn family wealth: China furious at US exposé,” The Guardian, October 26, 2012, accessed November 15, 2013, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2012/oct/26/china-wen-jiabao-family-wealth-revealed; “Bloomberg sites blocked in China days after Xi family wealth story,” Reuters, July 4, 2012, accessed November 15, 2013, http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/07/04/us-china-censorship-bloomberg-idUSBRE86306820120704
  8. This subject is particularly uncomfortable to debate because of the persistence of an anti-Japanese nationalism in China, which makes having a real two-sided debate very uncomfortable. It is difficult to find serious works in support of Japan’s claims in the East China Sea. See for example, Japan Times, “All Chinese journalists ordered to censor supportive stances toward Japan,” October 20, 2013, accessed November 15, 2013, http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2013/10/20/national/all-chinese-journalists-ordered-to-censor-supportive-stances-toward-japan/#.UoohWGT-KLs .
  9. See note 9. Also see “This House Believes,” The Economist, September 12, 2013, accessed November 15, 2013, http://www.economist.com/news/china/21586319-some-schools-are-teaching-children-how-think-themselves-house-believes
  10. This generally mirrors geographic and historic factors: The special economic zones in  Guangdong and Fujian were among the first cities in China to allow foreign people and  investment in the post-Mao era. Peking University, and, to a lesser extent, Tsinghua University have generally been decidedly more liberal than the average Chinese university, with several professors expressing openly calls for multiparty elections.
  11. This is perhaps self-reinforcing: debaters and observers with English skills strong enough to listen or participate in English-language debate are more likely to have travelled abroad and more likely to consume Western or foreign news and media. On the other hand, topics in Chinese language debate are often very abstract and aphoristic. For example, topics have included, “It is not acceptable to tell lies,” “It is best to never jump on the bandwagon,” and  “It is more important to do rather than say.” See http://zhidao.baidu.com/question/283347350.html
  12. Generally, CCTV and the People’s Daily are far more restricted than local TV stations or publications. Debates hosted on CCTV eschew all of the above-listed topics and tend towards “softer” social topics. If the Communist Youth League or Ministry of Education is involved, they often insist on approving all potential topics for the tournament or outright selecting the topic without consulting league officials.
  13. Xi’an Jiaotong University, one of China’s best universities, explicitly says so. Xi’an Jiaotong University,  “Student Organizations,” 2010, accessed November 15, 2013, http://www.xjtu.edu.cn/en/CampusLife/en19.html;  See also Jonathan Kaiman, “China Keeps a Close Eye on University Students,” Los Angeles Times, December 9, 2012, http://articles.latimes.com/2012/dec/09/world/la-fg-china-students-20121209
  14. Former Youth League members include former CPC Chairman Hu Yaobang, former President Hu Jintao, and current premier Li Keqiang. See Cheng Li, “One Party, Two Factions,” Paper Presented at the Conference on “Chinese Leadership, Politics, and Policy,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, November 2, 2005, accessed November 18, 2013, http://carnegieendowment.org/files/li.pdf; Cheng Li, “Rule of the Princelings,” Brookings Institute Press, February 10, 2013, Accessed November 15, 2013, http://www.brookings.edu/research/articles/2013/02/china-xi-jinping-li
  15. The National Forensics League eschews the topic. See National Forensics League, “Past Public Forum Topics,” 2013 http://www.nationalforensicleague.org/aspx/nav.aspx?navid=144&pnavid=227;  National Forensics League,  “Past Policy Topics,” 2013, http://www.nationalforensicleague.org/aspx/nav.aspx?navid=143&pnavid=227; National Forensics League,  “Past Lincoln-Douglas Topics,” 2013, http://www.nationalforensicleague.org/aspx/nav.aspx?navid=142&pnavid=227
  16. Various debates in the Kansas, Texas, and Wisconsin State Senates have been especially bitter and mean-spirited. See Dion Lefler, “Senate passes anti-abortion bill after bitter debate touching on Taliban and slavery,” The Wichita Eagle, April 5, 2013, Accessed November 15, 2013, http://blogs.kansas.com/gov/2013/04/05/senate-passes-anti-abortion-bill-after-bitter-debate-touching-on-taliban-and-slavery/; Josh Rubin, “After divisive debate, Texas Senate approves restrictive abortion measure,” CNN, July 13, 2013, Accessed November 15, 2013, http://www.cnn.com/2013/07/13/politics/texas-abortion-measure/; Josh Howerton, ‘”Sit Down Right Now!’: Wisconsin Senate Descends into Chaos During Debate Over Abortion Bill,” The Blaze, June 12, 2013, Accessed November 15, 2013, http://www.theblaze.com/stories/2013/06/12/debate-over-anti-abortion-bill-erupts-into-intense-shouting-match-on-wisconsin-senate-floor-youre-out-of-order/
  17. Of course, this absence probably owes as much to official restrictions on religious organizations as it does to a lack of religiosity.
  18. Barry Sautman, “Affirmative Action, Ethnic Minorities and China’s Universities,” Pacific Rim Law & Policy Journal 7 (1998), 77.
  19. Dan Froomkin, “Affirmative Action Under Attack,” The Washington Post, October 1998, Accessed November 15, 2013, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/politics/special/affirm/affirm.htm;  Daniel Farber, “The Outmoded Debate Over Affirmative Action,” California Law Review 82 (1993) 4; William Gibson, “The Great Affiramtive Action Debate,” The Sun Sentinel, November 16, 1997, http://articles.sun-sentinel.com/1997-11-16/news/9711150808_1_affirmative-action-preference-programs-florida-ballot

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David Weeks and Zhang Chengming

David Weeks is the President and Co-founder of the National High School Debate League of China. He holds a B.A. from Swarthmore College in Political Science and Asian Studies. Zhang Chengming is the Assistant Academic Director of the National High School Debate League of China. He currently studies law at Tsinghua University.