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3 days of nerves, tears and joy: U.S. expats lead debate nerds in China

Cloris Zhang and Michael Wang rose nervously from their blue plastic chairs in classroom 102 and silently sized each other up.

Beep! An electric timer squealed. Like Transformers rearranging themselves from cars into robots, the mild-mannered adolescents morphed into ruthless motormouths.

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Launching into his remarks with a gusto even Donald Trump might admire, Michael began his takedown of Washington's Middle East policy.

"The Iraq and Libya military interventions did not stop crimes against humanity — just the opposite! They offered opportunity for these tyrannical governments and organizations like ISIS," the 17-year-old said, referring to the militant group Islamic State. Sweat marks began peeking out from the armpits of his blue-checked shirt as he spoke a mile a minute in concise English.

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Cloris dished it right back at Michael with arguments seemingly ripped from the Dick Cheney playbook. "Can you tell us how economic sanctions can stop crimes against humanity?" the petite 15-year-old demanded in prim yet staccato bursts. "Other options are exhausted! Can you talk face-to-face, negotiate peacefully, with ISIS? It's not possible! You need military intervention."

Shaking his fist, Michael rejoined: "ISIS is the result of military intervention!"

"Time!" a scorekeeper announced. Michael sat down, mopping his brow. Cloris huddled over her laptop. The three judges bent over their desks, jotting notes and tallying points.

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"Argh, that was so tough!" Michael said, retreating to the hallway to await the results, laughing nervously. "The level of competition here is really intense."

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"Here" is the National High School Debate League of China championship, a three-day cross-cultural spectacle of nerves, intellect, ambition, hormones, tears and joy.

The league, now starting its fourth year, holds debate workshops and activities around the country for 50,000 students annually, and its 2015 championship tournament this month attracted more than 400 competitors.

Founded and run by a small group of expatriate American debate nerds now in their 20s, the league is in some respects a response to the limitations of China's intensely rote, test-oriented high school curricula. Its popularity reflects the frustration many elite students have with the education system; some of the competitors here hope to attend Ivy League schools and other U.S. colleges.

These teens view debate as a way to prepare for the rigors of Western higher education while making themselves more attractive to admissions officers. Last year, more than 274,000 Chinese students attended schools in the U.S., five times more than in 2000.

"Debate is a process of critical thinking and logic," said Danny Guo, 17, of Shenzhen, who was sporting a T-shirt bearing an image of NBA player Amar'e Stoudemire. "The Chinese education system — sorry, I'm going to say something very rude here — sucks. They don't let students innovate. It's just pushing the knowledge to your mouth."

Danny has given up on his Chinese high school and is enrolled for the fall at the Bromsgrove School in England.

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The existence of English-language high school debate tournaments in China, let alone their popularity, is an almost confounding phenomenon.

In recent years, Communist Party authorities have often seemed more interested in snuffing out debate than encouraging it, stepping up censorship of social media and shutting down a variety of real and virtual venues for citizens to exchange viewpoints on topics deemed sensitive.

Moreover, officials have cited a need to purge campuses, particularly at the university level, of Western values and teaching materials. Education Minister Yuan Guiren said in January that no textbooks that espouse Western values should be allowed in college classrooms, the official New China News Agency reported.

Universities have been urged to boost "ideological education" and inculcate in students an appreciation of Marxism, traditional Chinese culture, "socialist core values" and President Xi Jinping's "Chinese dream" mantra.

Yet amid such controls, there is widespread concern that China's education system isn't producing innovative thinkers who can propel the nation's economy forward.

Many pin the blame on China's high-pressure college entrance exam system. The test, known as gaokao, is essentially the sole determinant for university admissions, so it's little surprise that high schools focus intently on test preparation rather than intramural sports, music, theater or proms.

Now desperate for change, authorities have begun looking favorably on such activities as debate leagues as a balm for what ails the system.

"Our whole goal is to bring extracurricular activities as a concept," said Gavin Newton-Tanzer, 26, co-founder of the league, which is supported by modest registration fees, corporate sponsorships and paid camps. "Right now, we're largely serving the study-abroad kids, but I think it will expand greatly in the years to come."

"In the short term, though, parents are more inclined to accept debate, rather than, say, football, because debate has a link to English and the classroom," said Newton-Tanzer, whose company has government approval for events such as the debate competition.

Topics can be surprisingly spicy: Students have sparred over matters such as whether the death penalty should be abolished in China or if the rise of China benefits the United States.

At this year's championship, held at Beijing Sports University, the topic was whether powerful countries have a responsibility to intervene militarily in other countries to stop crimes against humanity. (Given that one of the pillars of China's foreign policy is "noninterference in each other's internal affairs," it was a potentially delicate subject.)

Such questions, league President David Weeks said, are a far cry from typical topics of Chinese-language debate, which often consist of aphoristic questions — "It is better to go around mountains than over them" — or propaganda-infused discussion points — "China's dream is the world's dream."

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Chinese and American debaters share much in common, such as pre-performance jitters.

"I just love the feeling of being nervous before I speak," Danny said. "It's addictive."

But there are differences. Whereas boys are overrepresented among the ranks of elite U.S. high school debaters, in China, girls make up the majority of English-language debaters, Weeks said. That may be in part because girls' linguistic and social abilities generally mature sooner than boys', and boys are steered heavily into math and science activities.

Daniel Tartakovsky, a Harvard University student who coached students at a one-week camp before the championships, then judged the competition, said he also noticed a significant cultural difference in arguing ethical dilemmas.

"It's always just like, we should save the most amount of lives, and the societal welfare; who cares about [individual] rights?" he said. "The common good is seen as the most important."

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Tartakovsky presented a thought experiment to students, asking them whether they would, as a government official, torture a terrorist, the terrorist's infant or even a random child to extract valuable life-saving information about a ticking time bomb.

All said they would torture the terrorist — and the terrorist's baby. Two said they would torture any random child to get the information.

"One student even said he would torture his parents in order to save 100 lives," Tartakovsky, 20, said. "I've never heard an American say that."

In a culture where direct criticism is often avoided, acclimating students to the idea of constructive feedback and learning from losing is also a bit of a novelty. Peter Gisbey, a Londoner who teaches at a school in Qingdao and had brought five students to the competition, said it was tough for them to understand there is no silver bullet to winning a debate.

"The biggest issue is the mentality; it's quite closed, the way they've been taught in previous years," Gisbey said. "Often what they're looking for is right and wrong answers. They see it almost like a rule book: In this situation, I say this, this will get me the marks, and this will get me the win."

"I try to tell them, 'With debate… and many areas of real life, it's usually not a question of black or white. There are many shades of gray, and the key is the quality of your argumentation.'"

For Cloris Zhang and her partner, Sherman Wang, 17, the championships turned out to be both exhilarating and disappointing. The two, who had never debated alongside each other but decided to team up only a week before the competition, made it to the Grand Final match.

The Grand Final was scored by a panel of seven judges. Cloris and Sherman lost by a decision of 5-2.

"I'm just enjoying the process, no matter what happens," Cloris said before the results were announced and giant golden trophies were handed out. "After debating, I feel like I know everything that's going on in the world."

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