Players recall icebreaking 'ping-pong diplomacy'

Yao Minji
Seminar on the challenges and opportunities of China-US relations discusses when, where and how the next "icebreaker" might happen via people-to-people exchanges.
Yao Minji

Li Furong, a legendary table tennis player nicknamed the “handsome bomb carrier,” had one dominant concern before setting off for a tour of the United States in 1972.

“I felt honored but also worried. I heard every American has a gun,” Li, now 79 and honorary life president of Asia Table Tennis Union, recalled on Friday at a seminar marking the 50th anniversary of “ping-pong diplomacy.”

Two weeks later back then, Li and his teammates were telling the American media how warmly welcomed they were everywhere they went. Jan Berris, who hosted and accompanied the team throughout the trip, initially thought they were just being polite.

But she soon felt the passion for the Chinese team in her home country and the equal, if not more, hospitality from Chinese to Americans like her.

Americans, not so much interested in table tennis, came out to watch the games shouting “Welcome,” sometimes in tens of thousands, to see what Chinese looked like and how they acted.

Berris, now vice president of National Committee on US-China Relations, visited China for the first time the following year, enjoying equal warmth and hospitality from the Chinese people.

She had experienced periods when people from both sides thought of each other as enemies. Berris was impressed at “how easily and quickly they overcame that” once they met in person.

Li and Berris, two old friends, shared their memories and views on the Sino-US relationship at the Friday seminar titled “Looking Back and Forward: Challenges and Opportunities of China-US Relations.”

They were joined by other old friends from “ping-pong diplomacy,” academics and businesspeople from both sides to discuss when, where and how the next “icebreaker” might happen via people-to-people exchanges.

Li’s US trip took place less than two months after former US President Richard Nixon’s historic visit to China, and around a year after a group of American table tennis players became the first American delegation to set foot in the People’s Republic of China.

Li’s trip, highlighted by a Rose Garden reception, was among the first of an array of visits by Chinese students, scholars, athletes and scientists after the normalization of Sino-US relations.

The series of events that began with a hippie’s right move on the wrong bus became known as “ping-pong diplomacy,” a diplomatic act in which “the small ball gave a push to the globe” and changed the geopolitical landscape forever.

“Without ‘ping-pong diplomacy,’ the ‘icebreaking’ and normalization between our two countries, people in our age group might have missed our best, prime years. Maybe we could only tell our grandchildren that we missed the opportunity at that time,” said 70-year-old Yang Jiemian, chairman of the Academics Affairs Council at the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies.

“But now, we can tell our grandchildren we were present at the creation.”

It all started when 19-year-old Glenn Cowan, long-haired and wearing purple bell bottoms, accidentally boarded a shuttle bus carrying the Chinese national team attending the 31st World Table Tennis Championships in Nagoya in 1971.

Outgoing Chinese ping pong star Zhuang Zedong stepped forward, said hello and gave Cowan a silkscreen picture of China’s Yellow Mountain.

Since early April this year, friendship games and exhibitions have been held in Shanghai to celebrate the 50th anniversary. Major US media, including The Associated Press and The Washington Post have also run articles recalling the historic “icebreaker” that opened China to the US.

On both sides, there seems to be a sense of hopeful nostalgia for the series of diplomatic initiatives that few foresaw would have started in the form of a small table tennis ball, especially at a time now when bilateral relations are under strain.

When, where and how will that be repeated? Or will it?

The COVID-19 pandemic has temporarily halted the physical people-to-people exchanges in general, but good news has filled the headlines in recent months — the vaccine, visa relaxations on both sides, increasing seating capacity on Shanghai-US flights, China’s aviation regulator relaxing suspension rules. And millions of people are expected to travel again, eventually.

Wu Xinbo, president of the Shanghai Institute of American Studies and director of the Center for American Studies at Fudan University, pointed to post-pandemic border reopening as a different kind of “icebreaker.”

“After the pandemic gets under control, exchanges between China and the US will gradually increase. Tens of thousands of Chinese and American students will study in each other’s countries again. Millions of Chinese and American tourists will visit. And we will see obvious changes in bilateral relations,” he said.

“Bilateral relations, in the end, is the relationship between the two peoples. Connection and communication between the peoples, especially exchanges between the younger generations, provide the basis of the relationship.”

He added: “If they can have good exchanges today, studying and sporting together, that is a big help for their understanding and dealing with bilateral relations in the future.”

In his speech at the seminar, James Heller, US consul general in Shanghai, a young student around the time of “ping-pong diplomacy,” called himself “a direct beneficiary.” The normalization that began with a table tennis ball branched into many fields over the years, including the opening of the Hopkins-Nanjing Center, where Heller studied.

Other American attendees at the seminar, including Jeffrey Lehman, vice chancellor of New York University Shanghai, and Jonathan Woetzel, senior partner at Mckinsey & Company, saw climate change an opportunity for the next “icebreaking.”

Yang, after hearing Heller’s experience as a student at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center, shared a surprising coincidence. When studying in the US in the 1980s, his Chinese roommate told Yang that he was returning to China as the Chinese co-founder of the center.

Now, 50 years after the remarkable events of “ping-pong diplomacy,” Chinese people are no longer surprised at seeing hippie-style Americans, while China stories often top American headlines. Such a coincidence that Yang shared may have been experienced by many Chinese and Americans who have collaborated and benefited from each other, hopeful for the next “icebreaker.”

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