Re­mem­ber­ing ping-pong diplo­macy 45 years after Chi­nese team’s US tour

How a game be­came an un­likely diplo­matic tool and helped nor­mal­ize re­la­tions

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - LIFE -

CHICAGO — Forty-five years ago, a group of world ping­pong cham­pi­ons from China paid a re­turn visit to the United States, fol­low­ing the US team’s his­toric visit to China in 1971.

Nor­mal­iza­tion of re­la­tions be­tween the two ri­val na­tions dur­ing the Cold War was grad­u­ally re­al­ized thanks to ping-pong, an un­likely diplo­matic tool.

In the past five days, ath­letes who per­son­ally wit­nessed the ping-pong diplo­macy decades ago, re­united in the US to cel­e­brated the 45 an­niver­sary of Chi­nese team’s first visit to the United States in 1972.

“I’m very ex­cited to have a chance to be here again and meet my old friends,” said 67-year-old ping-pong veteran Liang Geliang.

He and Zheng Huaiy­ing, for­mer woman world cham­pion, played an ex­hi­bi­tion match re­cently in the Univer­sity of Michi­gan with Dell and Con­nie Sweeris, who vis­ited China sev­eral times since their ice­break­ing tour in 1971.

The cou­ple’s last visit to China was in 2011, when they were in­vited to take part in the cel­e­bra­tion of the 40th an­niver­sary of ping-pong diplo­macy.

Re­call­ing her cross­ing a bridge from Hong Kong and set foot in what Washington used to call “Com­mu­nist China”, Con­nie told Xinhua that she was anx­ious and even a lit­tle scared be­cause she knew very lit­tle about China and its peo­ple be­fore.

More­over, Amer­i­cans were not al­lowed by their ad­min­is­tra­tions to visit China since 1949.

But when the Amer­i­can team fin­ished their tour, Con­nie found “the Chi­nese play­ers were very friendly and treated us with re­spect and kind­ness”. They made friends with each other.

Dur­ing their meet­ing this time in Michi­gan Univer­sity, Con­nie Sweeris chat­ted warmly with her old friend Zheng Huaiy­ing. The two showed each other the dig­i­tal pic­tures of their chil­dren and grand­chil­dren they keep in their cell­phones.

Both the Chi­nese and US ath­letes were still very fa­mil­iar with the old Chi­nese sports slo­gan “friend­ship first, com­pe­ti­tion sec­ond” as they staged their ping-pong skills in front of a large cheer­ing crowd in the Univer­sity of Michi­gan.

Along with the ping-pong hall of famers, some young Chi­nese cham- pi­ons also at­tended the events in New York, Chicago of Illi­nois and Michi­gan from Sept 15 to 19.

Wang Hao, Ding Ning, Yan Sen and Qiao Hong, all younger world ping-pong cham­pi­ons, were deeply touched when they heard the old gen­er­a­tion of the Chi­nese and US play­ers talk­ing about what they ex­pe­ri­enced.

“It is re­ally good to learn what hap­pened some 45 years ago and how sig­nif­i­cantly the old gen­er­a­tion of ping-pong play­ers did for the Sino-Amer­i­can re­la­tion­ship.” Wang Hao said.

The Chi­nese del­e­ga­tion also vis­ited the Ger­ald R. Ford Pres­i­den­tial Li­brary on the univer­sity’s Ann Ar­bor cam­pus, where they had a chance to read the ar­chives about the meet­ing be­tween China’s late Chair­man Mao Ze­dong and then US Pres­i­dent Ger­ald Ford.

The of­fi­cial in­ter­preter for the high-level Sino-Amer­i­can talks, Tang Wen­sheng, who was for­mer vice-chair­per­son of the China Soong Ching Ling Foun­da­tion that spon­sored the ping-pong play­ers’ cur­rent visit, ex­plained to them the del­i­cacy of re­la­tions be­tween China, the for­mer Soviet Union and the US dur­ing the Cold War.

In the Ford Pres­i­den­tial Li­brary, the dis­clas­si­fied min­utes from the White House brought her back to the 1970s.

Madame Tang was per­son­ally in­volved in the ping-pong diplo­macy from 1971. She knows what’s be­hind the doors and how the lead­ers pushed the nor­mal­iza­tion of the re­la­tions be­tween the two coun­tries, which sig­nif­i­cantly changed the world.

Jan Ber­ris, now the vice-pres­i­dent of the Na­tional Com­mit­tee on United States-China Re­la­tions, was one of the those who es­corted the first Chi­nese ping-pong del­e­ga­tion 45 years ago.

She told Xinhua that dur­ing the trip, the Amer­i­can jour­nal­ists and the or­di­nary peo­ple con­stantly asked Chi­nese ping-pong play­ers, “what is about the US that sur­prised you most? What did you find here that you didn’t ex­pect?”

“I would hear their response — We are re­ally sur­prised about how warm and wel­com­ing the Amer­i­can peo­ple are,” said Ber­ris, but adding she first thought it must be what they were told to re­ply.

But at the end of the 18-day tour, she be­lieved that the Chi­nese play­ers were right.

“It was re­ally a won­der­ful ex­pe­ri­ence and the best peo­ple-to-peo­ple diplo­macy that was sup­posed to do,” she said.

PHO­TOS BY WANG PING / XINHUA

Wang Hao (right), a world ping-pong cham­pion, played an ex­hi­bi­tion match re­cently in Chicago.

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