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Anti-government slogans are seen on an advertising board at a bus stop in Hong Kong. Photo: EPA-EFE

Mainland Chinese spectators, participants ‘walk out’, names redacted as topic on Hong Kong democracy in world’s largest university debate causes stir

  • World Universities Debating Championships in Bangkok cancels live stream midway over the motion ‘This House, as China, would grant universal suffrage to Hong Kong citizens’
  • Winning team from University of Oxford requests for names to be redacted from tournament records

A topic on Hong Kong democracy in the finals of the world’s largest international university debating tournament has caused a stir, after mainland Chinese spectators were said to have walked out and the winning team asked for their names to be removed from the records.

The World Universities Debating Championships (WUDC) was held on January 3 in Bangkok. Organisers cancelled a live stream of the event midway.

About 30 mainland Chinese students and teachers who were in the audience left the venue after the motion “This House, as China, would grant universal suffrage to Hong Kong citizens” was announced, according to sources.

A total of 34 mainland students from 11 universities were among about 1,000 debaters from more than 50 countries competing in the tournament.

The winning team from the University of Oxford, comprising Singaporean Lee Chin Wee and Canadian Jason Xiao, also in rare fashion redacted their names from official records after the competition. They had argued against the motion.

They were among participants who requested not to have their speeches in the tournament live-streamed.

Winners of the tournament requested that their names be struck off the record. Photo: Handout

Oxford beat three other teams – from Yale University, the University of Belgrade and Macquarie University, from the United States, Serbia and Australia respectively.

The four finalist teams and the audience were notified of the motion about 15 minutes before the match under existing rules.

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Hong Kong students, who were also present, stayed on to listen to the debate, the sources added.

Some mainland Chinese debaters, according to one source present at the scene, also complained to the organiser about the motion.

“They believed the motion put them at political risk,” the source said. “Therefore they walked out and removed their names from [tournament records this year].”

They believed the motion put them at political risk

Similar complaints of what debaters call “equity violation” have appeared in past tournaments. In 2016, at the United States Universities Debating Championship, a participating school protested against the motion “Violence by Palestinians against Israeli civilian targets is justified”. But the event eventually went ahead as scheduled.

WUDC has not responded to inquiries from the Post over the actions of mainland Chinese spectators and participants.

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In an earlier statement, the organiser said it had offered to redact the names of some participants and had cancelled the live stream as some debaters did not give consent.

“They did so for personal and professional reasons, due to the motion calling on teams to make statements they did not feel comfortable making in a public space,” WUDC’s equity team, which handles and investigates complaints, wrote on its Facebook page.

It said it did not have the power to screen motions unless adjudicators requested so, adding: “There was no involvement or pressure from any national body, embassy or official to ‘make the finals go away’.”

There was no involvement or pressure from any national body, embassy or official to ‘make the finals go away’

A Hong Kong participant who declined to be identified said the organiser had redacted all names of mainland Chinese and Hong Kong teams, but reinstated some a day after the finals.

Teachers from participating mainland universities approached by the Post were reluctant to respond. Among them was Professor Zhang Yafeng of Lanzhou Jiaotong University, who only pointed to the “official announcement” from organisers, declining to comment further.

China’s embassy in Thailand has not responded to inquiries from the Post over the matter.

Ivan Chan, who was the first debater from a Hong Kong institute to qualify for the open category of the competitive WUDC, said while some regional tournaments did provide the option of name redaction and suspension of live streams out of privacy concerns, it was unusual for WUDC to remove the recorded debate after it was partially live streamed.

“WUDC’s grand finals is an educational opportunity for many young and aspiring debaters around the world,” he said.

Hong Kong has been rocked by seven months of often-violent anti-government protests. Photo: Sam Tsang
The incident came against the backdrop of anti-government protests that have roiled Hong Kong for seven months. Sparked by the now-withdrawn extradition bill, the movement has since morphed into wider civil unrest calling for universal suffrage, among other demands, with violent clashes between radicals and police.

Additional reporting by Victor Ting

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: walkout over democracy debate