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Top spin

Can ping-pong boost China’s soft power?

Liu Shiwen: world number one

Harvard’s Joseph Nye coined the term ‘soft power’ in 1990, to describe the projection of a country’s values by cultural means.

Nye found America had plenty of it, thanks to things like Hollywood movies. Britain had a fair bit too, courtesy of institutions like the BBC. More recently, China has been struggling to figure out how to increase its own soft power quotient. It isn’t straightforward: some of the efforts to launch China-focused media coverage internationally have looked a little unsophisticated.

Zhang Jiancheng believes he has the answer: ping-pong. “Table tennis is China’s ‘soft power’ and can set up the country’s international image,” he says.

Zhang is the head of the newly established China Table Tennis Academy which is located in Shanghai. The goal is not only to train local players. The Academy plans to admit foreigners and teach them the secrets of China’s table tennis success.

Southern Weekly reports that the goal is to have a one-to-one ratio of foreign students to Chinese by 2020, training them jointly and allowing the overseas players to participate in domestic competitions. Tutors at the Academy will be former Chinese table tennis stars.

During their four years of study, Zhang believes the young foreigners will also learn to appreciate China’s culture and take a positive message back to their home nation.

There’s an ulterior motive too: China’s ping-pong bureaucrats also fear the game is in decline due to the country’s utter dominance of the sport. At the Beijing Olympics, China won every single table tennis gold medal. In China itself this has seen the sport’s TV audiences sag. Locals joke that ping-pong is “the game with the least suspense in the world”. To keep things interesting, other countries need to start winning too; and if foreign sports bodies aren’t capable of training such players, then it falls to China to do so in their stead. That’s another goal of the Academy, which will accept 150 students per year.

But what makes it all the more appealing for the Chinese students is that the Academy will also offer a college-style academic education too. This is also revolutionary, in its own way. China’s sports bosses have long been so focused on winning golds that they have made young athletes train around the clock, often at the expense of a wider education. “An internationally-renowned world champion could not even spell the Chinese phonetic alphabet,” scolds Southern Weekly.

At the ping-pong university, students will also study for academic degrees, meaning their employment prospects will be better after their sports careers end, or if they don’t make the grade at table tennis.

That being the case, it’s clear there’ll be no shortage of Chinese applicants. Whether foreigners will be quite so keen is the bigger question.


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