To his fans, Li is less a language teacher than a testament to the promise of self-transformation. In the two decades since he began teaching, at age nineteen, he has appeared before millions of Chinese adults and children. He routinely teaches in arenas, to classes of ten thousand people or more. Some fans travel for days to see him. The most ardent spring for a “diamond degree” ticket, which includes bonus small-group sessions with Li. The list price for those seats is two hundred and fifty dollars a day—more than a full month’s wages for the average Chinese worker. His students throng him for autographs. On occasion, they send love letters.
There is another widespread view of Li’s work that is not so flattering. “The jury is still out on whether he actually helps people learn English,” Bob Adamson, an English-language specialist at the Hong Kong Institute of Education, said. The linguist Kingsley Bolton, an authority on English study in China, calls Li’s approach “huckster nationalism.” The most serious charge—one that in recent months has threatened to undo everything Li has built—holds that the frenzied crowds, and his exhortations, tap a malignant strain of populism that China has not permitted since the Cultural Revolution.
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