When Team England—a variegated group of articulate high school students – won a stirring victory against 54 competitors at the World Schools Debating Championship in Stuttgart, Germany two weeks ago, defeating Canada in the final, Hong Kong played a surprising role in the win.
Both of the past two Team Englands have had one or more speakers who lived in the territory for significant periods of time and went to local schools.
Founded in 1988, the World Schools Debating Championships is considered the most respected international English-language debating competition for high school students. Since its inception, England has won the competition five times and has made the finals another six.
Team England 2016 included the captain, Kenza Wilks, from Dulwich College, Ed Bracey, a student from Eton College, Ife Grillo from Bridge Academy, Rosa Thomas of Alleyn’s School and Archie Hall from Westminster School, who was on the team for the second year.
In addition, a team from Hong Kong itself made the semifinals before being eliminated by Team England on a 4-3 split between the seven judges, the closest possible margin. The 18-year old Hall, from Team England and a onetime intern for Asia Sentinel, said that “During the adjudication [of the debate between Team England and Hong Kong], I remember turning to my teammate Kenza as we were standing on stage at several points saying ‘Okay, we’ve lost,’ because it was such a tight debate.”
England proposed that history curricula should not be designed to promote national pride, while Hong Kong opposed. Reaching the semi-finals, the best result for Hong Kong in several years, has made Team Hong Kong, in the words of Ariq Hatibie, one of its members, a “team who, without any semblance of doubt, could hold their own against the world.” Three of the debaters on the Hong Kong team – Eliot Chen, Ian Wu and John Yap – were among the top five speakers in the competition and all were in the top thirty.
Hall, who gave two of England’s four speeches in the final and spoke in each debate, lived in Hong Kong for 11 years, attending the same school as two members of the Hong Kong team. Indeed this is far from the first time that debaters with connections to Hong Kong have competed for other nations. In 2015 two members of Team England had gone to school at one point in Hong Kong, while in 2011 Paul Lau, a debater from Hong Kong who now plays a major role in assembling the draw for the competition, spoke for Team Wales, the nation where his boarding school was located.
Motions to be debated at the competition covered a wide variety of topics and the majority, including so-called “out-rounds” (the knockout stage of the tournament) were only announced to the teams an hour in advance.
England would not have made the knockout rounds under the rules of earlier competitions, having finished 17th when earlier such competitions only included 16 participants. However, for 2016 the number was expanded to 24. On the way to the final, Team England knocked out Slovenia, then South Africa, the top seed, followed by Pakistan and Hong Kong, which had been the top seed the previous year.
The final, against Canada, was debated on the motion: “This House believes that states should be allowed to pay other states to relocate and settle refugees” and won 6-3 by England, proposing the motion.
Debating in Asia continues to be on the rise, as just this week the UK’s largest schools debating competition, run by the Cambridge Union, announced that it was expanding to fourteen countries in Asia, including Hong Kong. This will make it the largest debating competition in the world by number of participants. One of the world’s largest debating training camps, HKPDS, also takes place in Hong Kong every year.