Beijing Review: Icebreakers in China-U.S. ties share their priceless memories as ping-pong diplomacy turns 50

BEIJING, April 9, 2021 /PRNewswire/ — A news report by Beijing Review reporter Li Nan:

Ring, ring… The ringing phone…

BEIJING, April 9, 2021 /PRNewswire/ — A news report by Beijing Review reporter Li Nan:

Dell and Connie Sweeris, former U.S. table tennis players, video chat with their Chinese friend Liang Geliang on February 5. Scan the QR code to watch the video (PHOTO BY YALI CARPENTER)

Ring, ring… The ringing phone shattered the silence of the night, forcing Dell Sweeris to pick up the receiver groggily. It was midnight of April 6, 1971, in Michigan, the United States, where he lived.

His wife Connie was on the line. «I’m going to China,» she said. The 20-year-old was in Japan as part of the American team, taking part in the 31st World Table Tennis Championships in Nagoya.

At that time, the U.S. had no diplomatic ties with the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Travel to the Chinese mainland was banned. But on that historic day, Connie Sweeris and her fellow U.S. players were invited to China, all of it thanks to a miraculous mistake.

Icebreaking trips

Three days before the midnight call, Glenn Cowan, another American table tennis player, hopped onto a shuttle bus meant for the Chinese team. Chinese player Zhuang Zedong, then three-time world champion, gave Cowan a silkscreen painting as a souvenir.

After they arrived at the venue, Cowan had a brief practice session with Liang Geliang, the youngest in the Chinese team. «Everyone was happy. We all realized it wasn’t just about table tennis. It was about friendship and establishing a bond,» Liang told Beijing Review.

Over the next few days, the U.S. players mentioned several times that they wanted to visit China. Early on April 7, the Chinese Government decided to invite the U.S. players to China.

The U.S. squad arrived in Beijing on April 10. They were the first Americans to set foot in the Chinese mainland in nearly a quarter of a century. Premier Zhou Enlai met the delegation at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. «Your visit to China has opened the door to friendly contacts between the people of the two countries,» Zhou said.

Things turned out as he had predicted. Three months later, then U.S. National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger paid a secret visit to China, which paved the way for President Richard Nixon’s visit in February 1972. The China-U.S. Joint Communiqué was issued in Shanghai on February 28, 1972, signaling the beginning of the normalization of bilateral relations.

One year later, the Chinese table tennis team paid a reciprocal visit to the United States. President Nixon received them in the White House. And China and the U.S. established formal diplomatic ties on January 1, 1979.

Liang Geliang trains an amateur player in Beijing on February 3 (PHOTO BY ZHANG WEI)

People-to-people ties

The past five decades have witnessed an increasing flow of students from each other’s countries, establishment of sister relationships between Chinese and American provinces (states) and cities, and frequent mutual visits.

However, the bilateral ties were affected by the trade war started by the Donald Trump administration and its campaign to stigmatize China over the novel coronavirus pandemic. The U.S. slapped travel restrictions and a hostile visa policy on Chinese. Personnel exchange dropped to its low ebb.

«In partnerships or friendships, there are always issues and ups and downs,» Connie Sweeris told Beijing Review. She thinks the best way to get around them is to have more people-to-people exchanges in culture, sports, education and other fields.

Gao Anming, Vice President and Editor in Chief of China International Publishing Group, suggests the two sides should team up to tackle COVID-19 and climate change fallouts and promote global economic recovery.

Rick Dunham, Co-Director of the Global Business Journalism Program at Beijing-based Tsinghua University, remains optimistic about the future of the bilateral ties. «There may not be agreement but we will have authentic dialogue,» he told Beijing Review.

At the latest dialogue between China and the U.S. in Anchorage, Alaska, held on March 18-19, the two sides discussed bilateral cooperation, including adjusting travel restrictions and visa policies for gradual normalization of personnel exchange.

Both the Sweerises and Liang, who are part of the ping-pong diplomacy, share the same simple wish: The friendship between the two peoples will continue despite political differences.

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SOURCE Beijing Review