China tells US it wants more cooperation as it marks 50th year of ‘ping pong diplomacy’

Linda Lew, South China Morning Post

Posted at Apr 12 2021 06:43 AM

China tells US it wants more cooperation as it marks 50th year of ‘ping pong diplomacy’ 1
Chinese and US flags flutter outside the building of an American company in Beijing, January 21, 2021. Tingshu Wang, Reuters/File

The Chinese ambassador to the US Cui Tiankui has celebrated the 50th anniversary of the unlikely sports exchange known as "ping-pong diplomacy" by urging the two countries to revive the spirit of the occasion.

In 1971, at the world table tennis world championships in Japan, the Chinese team surprised the American athletes with an invitation to play in China.

The two countries had had no diplomatic or economic relations for more than two decades since the establishment of the People's Republic and the outbreak of the Korean war.

But the invitation came at a fortuitous time, with China at odds with the Soviet Union and US president Richard Nixon trying to end his country's involvement in Vietnam, an area where he hoped Beijing could exert its influence.

The resulting visit by the US table tennis delegation to Beijing on 10 April 1971 heralded the start of the normalisation of relations, including Nixon's visit to China the following year.

"The two sides should inherit and carry forward the ping pong diplomacy spirit of mutual respect and seeking common ground while reserving differences," Cui said in a video address on Saturday.

Describing it as "the little ball moving the big ball (the planet)", Cui said the event went beyond a sporting exchange and helped to restore US-China relations, which has reshaped the world order since.

The Chinese diplomat also criticised those on the US side who were "obsessed with ideological bias and zero-sum thinking", which prevented cultural exchanges between the two countries.

US-China relations are again at a turning point, with Joe Biden continuing the hawkish stance against China pursued by Donald Trump.

The Biden administration has consistently characterised the relationship as a "competition" and the two countries have continued to jostle over Taiwan, Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and technology development.

Shanghai commemorated the anniversary by unveiling exhibitions at two table tennis museums, with eight Chinese athletes who took part in the 1971 games attending the opening ceremony, state news agency Xinhua reported.

Zhang Xielin, 81, a former table tennis champion who went on to become a high-profile coach and sports administrator, said that friendship throughout the generations was the wish of both the Chinese and American people, according to the report.

"I hope that through the commemorative activities for the 50th anniversary, we can remember that history, and continue the cultural exchange and friendship between the people of the two countries," Zhang said.

The 1971 visit saw nine American athletes, four officials and two spouses cross into mainland China from Hong Kong.

The team spent six days meeting Chinese officials such as premier Zhou Enlai, playing matches and visiting tourist attractions such as the Great Wall and the Summer Palace.

The visit paved the way for Nixon's visit the following year, where the two sides agreed to work towards the normalisation of relations - a decision that culminated in the establishment of formal diplomatic ties in 1979.

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