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Oxford debating society gets a new perspective

By BO LEUNG | China Daily UK | Updated: 2017-05-30 18:58

Michael Li is the first Chinese-British president of the prestigious Oxford Union Society.

Oxford debating society gets a new perspective

Michael Li was born in Manchester to parents from Sichuan province.  

A keen debater, he says he used to be a shy teenager who hated public speaking until he found his passion for discussions.

The union, which was founded in 1823, has a membership drawn largely from the University of Oxford. It is one of the most famous debating societies in the world.

Li said becoming the organization's first Chinese person was a proud moment.

"There have been a lot of presidents in the union's almost 200-year history," he said. "But, at the same time, being president is not about a specific identity; it is about getting the best out of your team and putting together a strong program of events. I'm very privileged and humbled to have this position."

Notable past-presidents of the Oxford Union include previous British prime ministers; Boris Johnson, the United Kingdom's foreign secretary; and Benazir Bhutto, a former prime minister of Pakistan.

Li, who turned 21 two weeks ago, was born in Manchester and is studying chemistry at Oxford.

His parents moved to the UK in the 1980s, from Sichuan province. At the age of 5, Li and his family moved to Sweden before returning to Britain when he was 10.

In the UK, Li attended Manchester Grammar and became involved in various activities and projects. In his final year, he became the first Chinese-British person to become school captain at Manchester Grammar.

His interest in debating started when he was around 15. He says that, despite being shy, he eventually came to love public speaking.

"I've always been interested in putting forward different points of views and looking at alternative perspectives," he said. "With my upbringing, I've been quite fortunate to have been exposed to different backgrounds and culture and, from that, it makes me think that there are always two sides to a story."

He said he enjoys coming up with an argument in a short space of time and "not just criticizing or attacking an argument but also convincing the audience and persuading them to side with your point of view".

Li first came across the debating society during an Oxford Schools' competition in 2013 where he gained "a glimpse of what the union does and how multifaceted it is".

He joined the union when he became a student at Oxford University in 2014. He became its president two years later.

Since joining the union, Li has helped put together more than 300 events. The Oxford Union has a history of hosting international fi gures and celebrities but one guest speaker who stood out for him was Professor Stephen Hawkin.

Li would like to see more international students join the debating society.

"The union will reach its 200th anniversary in 2023 and the challenges for us are engaging our members once they have left and also increasing the accessibility and membership uptake, especially getting international students and speakers to take part."

Li is not sure what he wants to do after he graduates but thinks he may look into consultancy or healthcare work.

He said he does not have any plans to follow in the footsteps of former union presidents Boris Johnson and Michael Gove and head into the world of politics.

One event from history that propelled the union into the spotlight took place in 1933, against the backdrop of a strengthening Soviet Union and the rise of Adolf Hitler's Nazi Party in Germany.

The union voted 275 to 153 in favour of the motion "that in no circumstances would this House fi ght for King and Country", triggering a torrent of public criticism, including allegations of disloyalty.

Future wartime leader and prime minister, Winston Churchill, condemned the vote as "that abject, squalid, shameless avowal... It is a very disquieting and disgusting symptom".


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