Has anyone else out there noticed that Chinese people (and perhaps other East Asian cultures) have an incredible knack for avoiding topics or avoiding taking a personal stance in arguments? In my experience, when I bring up a debate with my Chinese friends, strangers or colleagues, they often will say that the argument could go either way or that the subject is too hard or there are lots of possible problems/solutions. How they slip out of debates is very similar to how I imagine a politician would. I think it's actually an amazing skill. For example, if I were to complain about a colleague and site numerous examples, my Chinese friends can both sympathize with me and remain non-committal about that person at the same time. Even if they have no reason to not get on that person's bad side.
Always being able to dissemble and avoid difficult subjects may seem like a very convenient and good thing, but I can personally see why not taking a stance or "drawing the line" can also be a bad thing. For example: with regards to bad policies, ill treatment of persons or family members, or even injustices; just because it doesn't have to do with you personally you can comfortably avoid the subject, but SHOULD you?
By dissembling or avoiding certain subjects you can maintain a more harmonious atmosphere and avoid making enemies. A harmonious society can be very productive and a cohesive society be more peaceful, but I fear that people can take advantage of that.
I don't like the culture of "face" very much, people should be more responsible to each other as well as themselves. I do not like to argue with others, too. Sometimes the problems are not so serious, I will try to make others calm down and make him/her known of the differences are unavoidable so we can be more tolerant.When the problems are serious I will try to get him/her back to calm, and consider the whole thing clearly, using their sense of reason, any answer to the problem is acceptable if it is based on logic and truth.
Arguing with others is tiring. We won't take the risks usually, truly it is not so good, like escape. But sometimes the cost is too high that we fear to pay. Sometimes the situations and problems are really a lot. As I can see the authoritative news, textbooks are always telling you:"the problems are complex, you should use the scientific ways to explain them.....". If you want to say no, you want to explain it by yourself, some one would make verbal attack to you. Some guys play tricks with the so called "scientific ways", get many things messes. They are not accustomed to thinking, some people just pick a side that looks good to shield themselves, with discriminations. Most of us are more willing to continue living on our own circle, get away with the arguments. The culture of "face" always makes people lazy, spoilt, and fragile. They can not accept the criticism, even it is gentle, kind, and reasonable.
What you are describing here is known as "face culture". It's in the blood of the East Asians to "save face" and to "keep face". When you are challenging your Chinese friends to a debate, you are, in principle, challenging them to a fight. If they would partake, someone would "lose face", which is a serious thing. You could somewhat compare it to being humiliated in public. If they don't take a strong stand for something, it's just that they don't want to "lose face" or make anyone else "lose face" therefor performing the glorious and highly esteemed act of "save face".
Especially the Chinese people have a zillion tacit rules to follow regarding the "face". Certain people are, in principle, more valuable than others, you should always try to "save face" of the other person in your group and never challenge it. Then there's not only the face of an individual. As you may know, Chinese culture is more collective than individualistic. Traditionally, anyway. There's also the collective "face", like "face" of your family, "face" of your workplace, "face" of your nation etc. You have to study this issue a really long time to fully understand all the rules and nuances. Not even the Chinese born Chinese people can really explain the "face culture". "It just is like this because ... it is like this." That's because it's largely tacit knowledge. You just have to 'get it' through experience.
It helps to get along with people, sure. It also forces people to do many things, including the wrong thing, knowingly, because of "saving face". Even if the end result is 100% certainly going to be a horrible disaster.
To give more perspective... you can roughly compare East Asian "face culture" to the Arabic "honor culture" or the more western "culture of shame".
One of the key concept of Confucianism is the doctrine of the mean, which means stays in the middle is the best approach, never go extreme, follow the mainstream etc. I believe wikipedia is better than me for this so I attach the link above. In general, I think Chinese people care more about other people's feeling (especially when it is with strangers) comparing with western cultures.
You revealed a very recondite issue in Chinese people (maybe not only in Chinese people.) Here I want to show some of my opinions.
First, some people are smart enough to avoid arguing with others, it's a way of keep a harmonic circumstance;
Second, people are so different, they own various concepts, even many against each other, so they use a skill to avoid contradiction, but it didn't equal that they have no their own ideas, maybe they didn't want to tell because their ideas could be against you;
Generally Chinese people dislike disputing, fighting, especially when the event doesn't relate to themselves, so they may prefer avoid divergences.
For example, I think that cars shouldn't be developed in Chinese cities, but when I express my idea of this, one of my friend had inverse point of view to me, but she disliked arguing with me, so she will said that [yes, you are right, but cars bring us much convenience, right?], or she said nothing, just smile a little.