We’ve mentioned ping-pong diplomacy a few times before, following a celebrated tour in the early 1970s when Mao Zedong invited the American table tennis team to China. During the visit the US lifted its 20-year trade embargo, and in February 1972 Richard Nixon visited China, the first American president to do so in the Communist era.
The rest, as the saying goes, is history.
So should we be reading more into sporting diplomacy once again, albeit with bats upgraded into rackets?
On July 6 mainland Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai made history when she and Taiwanese player Hsieh Su-wei became the first ‘cross-straits duo’ to win the ladies’ doubles at Wimbledon, beating Australian duo Ashleigh Barty and Casey Dellacqua. Peng gave Beijing its first doubles title at a major in seven years, while Hsieh became the first player from Taiwan to win a Grand Slam title.
The pair, who are both 27, played a few tournaments together as juniors but ended their partnership after turning pro. In 2008, Hsieh asked Peng if she would be up for a renewed association.
“We speak the same language and we’ve known each other and been friends since we were young. We have fun and we really enjoy our tennis. I also love going to Taiwan and after Wimbledon she will come to Beijing and if she gets time, we will eat some Peking Duck,” commented Peng after the match.
The celebration of their triumph was to be short-lived. The conversation quickly turned from sports to politics after a provocative question to Taiwan’s Hsieh from a Japanese reporter about what it meant to win a grand slam for “her country” as a “Taiwanese”.
Before she could answer, Peng interrupted the conversation: “I am sorry, but I am still sitting here,” she said, raising her hand, “and I don’t accept the claim that Taiwan is a ‘country’. Tennis is only a sport, and we don’t intend to get involved in politics.”
But in spite of her stated reluctance to get involved in politics, she had done just that.
Her comment was met with mixed reaction on both sides of the Strait. While some applauded her for being “patriotic”, others suggested that she had embarrassed her partner in front of a room of reporters. “[If Peng won’t recognise Taiwan as a country], why would Hsieh accept that Taiwan is a province of China?” one weibo user wrote.
In Taiwan, pro-independence newspapers bristled. Peng’s move “shows the extent to which Chinese will go in their chauvinism… at a moment when people on both sides of the Strait should have been rejoicing, Peng – like many other Chinese – could not help herself and acted in a way that, to paraphrase the Chinese refrain, ‘hurt the feelings of the Taiwanese people’,” the Taiwan Times griped.
Taiwan’s political status is a thorny subject linguistically. For example, when the New Zealand government signed a landmark free trade deal with the island last week it described Taiwan merely as a “separate customs territory”.
But the controversy at Wimbledon didn’t end there. Immediately after the win, Hsieh’s father told the AFP that his daughter was considering giving up her Taiwanese citizenship to go to mainland China after a sponsorship offer from a Chinese brewery worth $1.6 million a year.
“There is not much we can do. Hsieh gets $50,000 in corporate sponsorships a year,” her father told the pro-China newspaper China Times. “The size of her sponsorship determines whether her younger brother and sister [who are both professional tennis players too] can compete overseas.”
His comments stirred vitriol in Taiwan. Beijing has been wooing Taiwan’s top talent in every field, including its sports stars. Wu Chia-ching, a world champion pool player, became a Chinese citizen in order to represent the mainland in international competition.
The island’s favourite golf star, five-time major winner Yani Tseng, is also said to have been tempted to pledge allegiance to Beijing before deciding against it. In fact Tseng’s popularity skyrocketed after her father said that she had refused a five-year sponsorship deal worth $25 million from a Chinese company which would have required her to switch citizenship.
Taiwan’s Sports Administration is now saying that it will do all that it can to persuade Hsieh to stay in Taiwan by lobbying for more corporate sponsors on her behalf.
Hsieh also sought to calm the controversy on returning to Taiwan. The tennis player told local media that the brewery isn’t the first mainland Chinese firm to have approached her, but “I just never mentioned any of them in public. I think there’s no need to make a fuss about it..” She then reiterated her continued Taiwanese citizenship – “What more confirmation do you need?” Hsieh asked.
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