Proposition speaker Adam Tyndall, Co-founder and Director of China Britain Youth, began the debate by making a clear distinction between power and ideology. He brought up the issue of China’s undemocratic, authoritarian system only to dismiss it as utterly irrelevant. After all, the power of China does not rest upon our opinion of its leadership. He narrated the ongoing competition between the world powers with all the humor and enthusiasm of a commentator at a sports match; round one fell to Britain in the nineteenth century, round two to America in the twentieth, and round three, given the clear, cyclical patterns of history, will inevitably fall to China. India he disqualified from the start, since “poor, uneducated people” cannot hope to rule the world.
The next speaker, St. John’s undergraduate and Treasurer elect Parit Wacharasindhu, argued for a more balanced, multipolar future. Although he acknowledged China’s influence, he dismantled its reputation for global supremacy. In response, Lord Powell, former Private Secretary of both Thatcher and Major and President of the China-Britain Business Council, affirmed the effectiveness of the Chinese system of central control. According to him, it provides stability and prosperity for the Chinese people, which is essentially all they want. When opposition speaker Stephan Halper asked him to account for the 180 000 protests that took place in China over the past year, he pointed out the relative insignificance of the number given China’s population of 1.3 billion. Without putting it as bluntly as “might equals right”, he argued that China’s economic growth legitimizes its system of government. Since everyone knows that winners write the history books, posterity might even admire Western nations for swallowing their pride and, in his own words, “hugging the panda”.
But no one could be less in the mood for panda hugging than the next speaker for the opposition, Sir David Tang, founder of the fashion chain Shanghai Tang and the restaurant China Club. He called Lord Powell’s light dismissal of the protests in China “a travesty”. Lord Powell assured him that the protests were a healthy sign, praising the people for organizing them and the authorities for allowing them to take place. But Sir David Tang advised anyone who doubts the authority of the Chinese government to go to Tiananmen Square and whisper under their breath that they are a member of Falun Gong; they can then expect to disappear for a period of months or even years. Far from proving the government’s popularity, the silence and passivity of the Chinese people only illustrates the extent of its power.
The next speaker, Lord Wei, the first and only British born Chinese member of the House of Lords, addressed Sir David Tang’s concern for human rights by predicting future political reform. Instead of raging against current injustices, he resigned himself to the fact that change takes time and money. On the opposition side, Sir Christopher Hum, former master of Gonville and Caius College at the University of Cambridge and former H.M Ambassador to China, drew attention to China’s lack of cultural influence, or what he termed ‘soft power’. He recounted sitting in a café in a remote village in China, drinking Heineken and watching English football. In his view, until British students flock to Chinese universities, Chinese film studios have supplanted Hollywood, and he sits down with a can of Chinese beer to watch Chinese table tennis, the twenty-first century cannot belong to China.
To conclude the case for the proposition, Linda Yueh, a fellow in Economics at St. Edmund Hall and director of Oxford’s China Growth Centre, introduced a note of reason and calm to the fiery rhetoric of the previous speakers. She made it clear that neither China’s economic success nor its internal problems can be simply set down to the sheer amoral power of the government; she explained that Chinese entrepreneurs thrive in many ways in spite of the state and China’s inequality is aggravated by the exploitation of Western companies. She ended her speech with an appeal to common sense, pointing out that a nation of over 1.3 billion individuals cannot fail to dominate the world. Sir Christopher Hum might be dismayed to hear it, but she, along with 50% of the world’s population, do not drink Heineken or watch English football.
Opposition speaker Professor Stefan Harper, director of American Studies at Cambridge, concluded the debate with a robust defense of American power. He listed the many times throughout history that America’s doom has been predicted and America has proved the naysayers wrong. Without the American values of freedom of speech, democracy, and open public debate, China has no hope of sustaining its meteoric rise. The two notions of power and ideology, which previous speakers had striven to keep separate, thus merged into one. Even though the resolution only refers to the existence of China’s power, the debate inevitably became entangled in the moral question of what we should do about it. And this decision is as much about the West as it is about China; whether they described China as an economic success or an enemy to democracy, each speaker reinforced the division between the two halves of the world. With so much at stake, it becomes almost impossible to abandon political agenda and judge China, its flaws as well as its achievements, on its own terms.