Hong Kong-Shanghai school debating contest breaks down barriers

At a time of rising anti-mainland sentiment and political discontent in Hong Kong, the inter-city contest has assumed greater importance as a means to foster understanding

PUBLISHED : Monday, 27 July, 2015, 1:26am
UPDATED : Monday, 27 July, 2015, 10:51am

Debating the merits of travel, co-educational over single-sex schools and how much the fast food industry is to blame for obesity is a rite of passage for secondary school students. However, for some, debating means more than a shot at high school glory.

Since 2003, the Shanghai-Hong Kong Cultural Exchange and Debating Competition, organised and funded by schools from the two centres, has used the event to bring students from these closely tied, yet ideologically disparate, cities closer together.

The 2015 renewal, held in early July, took on greater significance given the rising hostility in Hong Kong towards people from the mainland and last year's Occupy protests; relations between the two regions seem shaky at best, something that did not go unnoticed by the Shanghai students participating.

"This year, because of the political events, we had to guarantee that Hong Kong is a safe city, to give them confidence to come here. They only know what they hear in the news, but we are just living our daily lives," says Theresa Tao Chee-ying, principal of Hong Kong True Light College.

Tao was one of the five heads of school that launched the annual event, and its coordinator for the first 11 years, and was heavily involved in this year's programme.

"I treasure this cultural exchange more because sometimes the political situation in one city will influence other people's perspectives," she says.

Debate, a discipline which pits one side against the other, might seem a strange way to bring people together, but Tao says the organising committee chooses "genuine and global topics, which foster and enrich understanding between these two cities".

"It helps students to expand their knowledge of social and international issues," she says.

The competition is held in English and sees six teams from each city go head to head over two days. Teams consist of three speakers who each have four minutes to state their argument. Each team also has a researcher.

Participants from Hong Kong are 15 to 16 years old, while Shanghai's competitors can be as old as 18. Another key difference is that while the Hong Kong teams represent their city, the Shanghai teams represent their schools; according to students from both sides, this ramps up the competitive spirit within the mainland camp.

"All competitors undergo a rigorous selection process, involving practice debates, often on the subjects that will be used in the event," Stephen Farmer, coach of Hong Kong Team 4, winners of last year's competition, explained. The victory by Farmer's team was Hong Kong's first in a decade.

"You have to work very hard," says Kelly, 16, who represented Hong Kong in this year's event. Ivy, 17, a fellow Hong Kong competitor, says: "It gives us the chance to exchange ideas, but I find the public speaking aspect very nerve-wracking."

The location of the debate alternates each year. This year's was held in a hall at Hong Kong Baptist University.

As the teams arrive on the final afternoon, the lecture theatre is packed. Playful piano music and chatter can be heard above the general buzz. It's lunch hour, and many have stayed behind to help, or at least pretend to help, in preparation for the final two debates, which will decide this year's winner and runners-up. The proposal? That celebrities should have more privacy rights. Who knew the likes of Kim Kardashian, Kanye West and Jennifer Lawrence could bring communities together?

We have to be very careful with our choice of topic. We can never choose a political subject
Stephen Farmer, HK debating coach

During the finals, both Hong Kong teams argued in favour of more privacy rights for celebrities. Many speakers made interesting points; some even sending the audience, largely made up of their peers, into fits of giggles. On the Shanghai side, one girl, argued: "Celebrities can't live the life of a whore and pretend to be wearing a chastity belt." The laughter that induced was enough to remind anyone watching that, while the competitors take the event seriously, often preparing for months, they are there to have fun and make new friends.

"The best part about the event is the cultural exchange," says Jerry, 18, a student from Shanghai Chang Zheng Secondary School. "It gives us the chance to make friends in Hong Kong." Shanghai student Elaine, 18, representing Yi Chuan High School, agrees. "We get to meet over lunch and we can discuss our different cultures. I will make an effort to stay in touch with the people I get on with here."

Watching these students make friends, swap details and promise to never lose touch, it would be easy to think that there is nothing important separating them. However, in the final, each of the Shanghai teams highlighted the value of press freedom, offering a reminder of one of the key differences between the two cities. "We have to be very careful with our choice of topics. In Hong Kong you can discuss whatever you like, so for the event it is important to select the debates together. We can never choose a political subject," Farmer says.

In the end, the Hong Kong teams took both winner and first runner-up positions. It is once the speakers have put away their notes and the judges' pens have been laid down that the real fun can begin. Aside from the shared meals during breaks in the competition, the visiting students are treated to trips around the home team's city. There is sightseeing, as well as dinners and sometimes a party on the final evening.

The Shanghai students were heading to Ocean Park to let off some steam after the stress of the contest. After all, they have time on their side: it will be years before these students can take up the responsibility for improving relations between Hong Kong and the mainland.