IDEA brings Chinese debaters to Willamette

Four college students from China will visit Willamette in late February as part of a month-long Northwest Debate Tour, sponsored by the International Debate Education Association (IDEA).

The Chinese students are traveling to six Oregon and Washington universities to practice democratic free speech by discussing topics that are censored in their home country.

While at Willamette, they will engage in an informal debate with Willamette students on the topic of censorship. The event, which is free and open to the public, is Friday, Feb. 26, at 5:30 p.m. in Ford Hall, Room 122.

The Chinese students also will participate in the Mark O. Hatfield Debates at Willamette Feb. 27-28.

"This is a unique opportunity for me to learn and grow as a debater and as a student by interacting with people from a fundamentally different culture and linguistic background," says Kevin Bell '12, one of the Willamette students who will participate in the informal debate. "I'm excited to meet with the Chinese debaters on a neutral playing field and talk with them levelly about one of the biggest issues dividing our respective countries today."

With independent entities at Willamette and in Amsterdam, IDEA promotes debate, discussion and the free exchange of ideas among youths in more than 40 emerging democracies worldwide.

The four Chinese students were the winners of a debate tournament last May hosted by IDEA in Xi'an, China. The Northwest tour is an extension of IDEA's recent efforts to hold tournaments and events in Asia that encourage the discussion of prohibited issues about Tibet, Taiwan, Tiananmen Square and Internet censorship.

During the tour, debaters will be able to discuss topics that are normally taboo, with other students their age.

"The debate tour emphasizes the fact that the notions of free speech in China and the U.S. are so different," says Willamette Professor Robert Trapp, IDEA-US executive director. "People are nervous in China about criticizing the government, specifically about these issues. With this in mind, IDEA has continued to push the envelope in bringing debate and free speech to China."

Trapp has been instrumental in this effort, consistently working to discover means of initiating discussions of censored topics. IDEA has hosted debates in China on a small scale where the audience knew that debaters were assigned to the pro or con side of the topic, and nobody was seen as speaking against the government.

Willamette debater Joe Provencher '11 sees the events in Salem as an opportunity to enhance international travel for both the Chinese debaters and the Willamette program.

"The chance to go to foreign countries, and especially foreign schools, is valuable," he says. "This visit also reminds us that people of all backgrounds can come together and argue without offense or incivility. The use of rhetoric can be educational, entertaining and healing as much as it can be divisive or incendiary."

IDEA trainer Yang Ge said the debate tour also helps the Chinese students learn the distinctions between Mandarin and English debate.

"I hope the students can sense and understand the differences between east and west in the way of thinking, the perspectives, the characters and the way of debating, so they can sort out their limitations and improve themselves," Ge says.

For more information on IDEA's efforts in China and to read about other China events, visit the IDEA Willamette website.