Finding Holes in China's Great Firewall



By any standard, Crazy English is a huge success on the mainland. Anywhere from 1,000 to 30,000 people turn up at venues such as the Forbidden City and the Great Wall for a chance to yell with Li Yang, who takes to the stage shouting things like 'No pain, no gain', with rock and rap music playing in the background. The audiences can't seem to get enough.

Mr Li, however, is not without his critics, who wonder if there's really a method to his madness. Zhou Min, who hosts several English radio programmes in Beijing, is sceptical, saying English takes a lot of hard work to master. 'You can't learn English simply by yelling,' she says.

'He's a crazy guy who knows how to promote himself,' says Bruce Liu of Studio Classroom. 'The best word I can think of to describe him is demigod.'

In 1996, English teachers in Guangdong rose up against Mr Li, complaining that his methods had encouraged their students to ignore their normal studies. The result was a six-month prohibition. And Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan, also banned Crazy English for a spell.

Despite the criticisms, his method remains popular, to no small degree a product of his ability to market himself. But even his critics admit that Crazy English has its merits. Zhou concedes that Crazy English has played a role in getting people to overcome their fear of speaking the language. 'That's why a lot of people reconsidered learning English,' the talk show host says. 'It has helped in some ways.'

David Meyer, an American teacher who toured the mainland with Mr Li last summer, says the Xinjiang native gets people excited about learning English. 'He's constantly pushing you, telling you that you're the best, that there's no one like you,' says Mr Meyer. 'He tells you that you're special, and you feel you can do it.'

Mr Meyer has since adopted some of the Crazy English methods in his own classes at SIAS International University in Henan. Meanwhile, Mr Li insists there is a method to his madness, arguing that he is succeeding while the mainland educational system continues to turn out incompetent English speakers. 'A guy once asked me how I knew he had a PhD,' he tells an audience in Beijing. He pauses for effect, smiles, and then gives the answer. 'I told him: 'Because your English sucks'.'

He then takes on Beijing University and Qinghua University, two of China's premier institutes of higher education, arguing that graduates can't speak well enough to get past job interviews with multinational companies. 'I've passed the CET 6,' Mr Li says on stage, mocking a graduate, waving the pretend certificate. But when the potential employer asks a simple question, Mr Li, the pretend student, grimaces, 'Can you please repeat that?' The audience breaks into laughter.




© 2013 Paul J. Mooney