Ping-pong diplomacy was born in 1971 when American table tennis player Glen Cowen hitched a ride with the Chinese team after missing the US team bus at the World Championships in Japan.
At the time China and the US were still notionally Cold War rivals, so when Cowen climbed aboard many of the Chinese players felt it was improper to speak to him.
But one player Zhuang Zedong was intrigued and he started a conversation by offering a gift – a painting on silk. The two men were photographed chatting and when journalists asked Cowen if he would like to visit China, he said yes.
Mao Zedong was reportedly sceptical about the idea but later changed his mind when he saw the opportunity to restart talks on diplomatic relations with the US.
A few days later the American team arrived in China – the first delegation from the US to visit since the Communists assumed power in 1949. The trip set the stage for Richard Nixon to travel to China a year later – driving a wedge between Beijing and Moscow and paving the way for Beijing to secure diplomatic recognition around the world in place of Taipei.
Today Sino-US relations are deeply strained, despite the leaders of the two nations holding their first summit – a virtual one (see WiC564) – earlier this month, more than 10 months since Joe Biden took office.
But this April was the fiftieth anniversary of the American ping-pong team’s visit to China. And to mark the occasion, the two countries fielded combined teams in the mixed doubles at the World Table Tennis Championships in Houston in Texas this week.
The teams comprised Lin Gaoyuan (China) and Lily Zhang (US); and Wang Manyu (China) with Kanak Jha (US). Lin and Zhang went on to take the bronze medal against the Japanese team – with much of the Chinese media focusing on the fact that the unusual arrangements had allowed an American to win a table tennis medal for the first time in more than 62 years.
Lin “helps me fly”, Zhang was widely quoted as saying of her playing partner, while Lin thanked Zhang for helping him to “stay calm”.
The other Sino-US team lost all three matches, although that didn’t stop the Chinese media from waxing lyrically about the “beauty of people-to-people contact”.
“The significance of the China-US combination is not only the results. If the interaction of athletes from the two countries can express the friendship of the two nations’ people via table tennis, it will be a glorious event in table tennis history,” Liu Guoliang, the head of the Chinese Table Tennis Association, told reporters obligingly.
China’s ambassador to the US, Qin Gang, also brought up the fiftieth anniversary in a video address, saying that table tennis had helped to “break the ice of estrangement and confrontation”. He then added: “In recent years China-US relations have met serious difficulties [which] is not in the fundamental interests of the two countries.”
Of course, one of the many issues causing friction relates to another version of tennis – the accusations by the player Peng Shuai that she was coerced into having sex at his home by a former high-ranking Chinese official. Peng has largely disappeared from public view since making the accusation on November 2. With the notable exception of a video conference call with senior members of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), attempts by international sporting bodies to speak to her have failed.
On Wednesday the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) issued a strongly-worded statement saying that it seriously doubted that Peng was “free, safe and not subject to censorship, coercion and intimidation”. It went on to announce the suspension of all eight WTA tournaments scheduled for mainland China and Hong Kong in 2022. “In good conscience I don’t see how I can ask our athletes to compete there,” WTA chairman and CEO Steve Simon explained. “Given the current state of affairs, I am also greatly concerned about the risks that all our players and staff could have if we were to hold events in China in 2022.”
China’s foreign ministry has described the ongoing speculation about Peng’s whereabouts as “malicious” and warned about “politicising” sport.
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