Adjudicating High School Debating in China by Chris Edwards

I still remember in late 2015 receiving an unsolicited approach from someone claiming to be from the National High School Debating League of China. I had never heard of the organization, but I had fond memories of debating in high school, so I opened the LinkedIn message.

In it, I was given an introduction to the organization and the opportunity to adjudicate a high school debate; “Patents should not be issued for life-saving medicine” was the topic. I jumped at the opportunity to go to Guangzhou, and discovered they had an event in Shenzhen too, so I opted to judge that tournament as well.

A few weeks later, and I was in Guangzhou at a school doing my final piece of training on how to judge high school debating. It was the American Public Forum (AP) format: a 2 on 2 style where you know your topic for quite some time in advance but could debate either side of the topic depending on the toss of the coin. Saturday I judged 5 or 6 debates and I was impressed by the English ability of the students as well as their knowledge of price-elasticity, generic drugs, evergreening, and other topics that I had limited knowledge about.

It went without saying that the tournament the following weekend, on the same topic, in Shenzhen was something I was looking forward to. I had set my whole weekend aside for this tournament, and the students did not disappoint me. One team had even travelled in from Beijing for the tournament, and the quality of debate remained high. I was honored to be asked to stay to judge the final.

At this point I was hooked. I was being paid (not a lot, but enough to make it worthwhile) to judge students on an academic pursuit I enjoyed, discussing topics that they would never be allowed to debate in a traditional Chinese classroom, in English, and it wasn’t taking up huge amounts of time: a couple of weekends every 6 months. What wasn’t to love about it?

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When I was approached to judge again in May 2016, I instantly said yes, and booked consecutive weekends aside for the Guangzhou and Shenzhen tournaments. The topic this time was “The Chinese government should introduce a carbon tax.” Now, this was a topic that was almost certainly going to be fiery, however I was not anticipating the high level of understanding from students.

I remember hearing intensive arguments about carbon taxes in India and Australia, corruption of state-owned enterprises, levels of CO2 emissions – the standard of debate was overall incredible. I judged a total of 22 debates over the 2 weekends.

The Guangzhou round proved to be highly popular with students, with teams coming from all over the country, including Shanghai, Xi’an, Chongqing and Changsha. One team told me that they were doing their 4th tournament on this topic. The reason for its popularity? It was one of the last rounds before the national final, and for these students, a win in the final would be their ticket to the national final in Beijing in August.

When we came to November 2016, I volunteered my time, giving up both weekends to judge a new topic: “Urbanization in China has done more good than harm.” This was certain to be a vicious topic, given the number of students that generally don’t have local “hukous” (residencies) in both Guangzhou and Shenzhen, and I was right. Arguments flowed about ghost cities, improper infrastructure, hukous, increased income, left behind children, and air quality – all well argued.

One of the highlights from this pair of tournaments was the final in Shenzhen. One student from, I think, Shenzhen Communication College (or a school with a similar name) asked her opponent what the GNI coefficient was. Now, the judging panel did not understand her approach, but when a little smile crept across her face, we realized that her strategy was to make her opponent waste time explaining something that she didn’t care about and that we knew about, but it would prevent her opponent from asking any questions. Her opponents then spent more time in their other speeches explaining the importance of the GNI coefficient, instead of focusing on the actual arguments that were important. This allowed the young lady and her teammate to concentrate on what they wanted, and thus, they could win the debate. When we asked her about this afterwards, she did not deny it – quite the amusing outcome for us.

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Finally, in March this year, I did 22 debates between Guangzhou and Shenzhen on the topic “the United Nations is no longer important,” bringing me to 84 or 85 debates. This topic forced the teams to think about what the UN does, whether other organizations can do it better, and the failings of the organization. Some teams were clever in examining the lesser known areas of the United Nations, such as its role managing the international post and transport regimes: arguments that were often lost on their opponents.

I’ve spoken at length about what’s happened during the actual event, but I haven’t talked about the long time sitting in classrooms, writing thousands of words of notes, emptying pens over a single weekend, and trying to understand some of the poor speakers, as well as improving my knowledge on areas that I’ve never thought to learn about. I’ve travelled to parts of Guangzhou I never would have otherwise, and I’m planning a trip to Zhuhai for a tournament there in May. I’ve even considered travelling all the way up to Shanghai for a tournament, based on how the finalists in the most recent Shenzhen tournament performed.

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My broader point is that while it can take a full weekend to judge a debate tournament, you are doing something truly different. China is a wonderful place to provide you with opportunities to try stuff you never would have thought to do in your home country. If you’re interested in doing this, get in touch – I’m happy to point you in the right direction for future tournaments.

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