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Number 1 Shimbun

Pingpong Diplomacy – 50 Years On





Frenzy! That is not a word you would normally associate with our sedate Club. But there was a time....

The time was May, 1971, just 50 years ago. The World Table-Tennis championships in Nagoya had just ended. Rumors said Beijing would be inviting all teams present to visit China after the games. In those days invites to China were rare. The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution was still under way. Its reports of internal chaos and external hostility were intimidating. Foreigners trying to get into China risked much.

But there were also reports that said that the invitations represented some change in Beijing’s policies, that it was finally looking for some kind of opening to the outside world after five years of destructive Cultural Revolution isolation. For those of us who had been looking into China from Tokyo for years, here was a news chance not to be missed. Requests for visas to cover team visits poured into Beijing’s usually unreceptive ears.

Early off the mark, April 9, to receive what they said were ‘laconic replies’ to their visa requests were well-known China watcher, John Roderick of AP (he had met the communist leadership in their caves pre-war and knew them well, he said) and the NBC office here headed by veteran correspondent John Rich (later Club president) with Jack Reynolds, as technical expert. They were told they could only cover the pingpong visit of the U.S. team and nothing else. Even so, we could only watch with envy as they set off. Their daily reports were headline news, culminating in a meeting with Premier Zhou Enlai himself, where he congratulated them for opening the pathway into China.

As Tokyo-based correspondent for The Australian at the time I like every other Australian correspondent in town (all three of us) was on the phone immediately trying to get hold of the Australian team manager, a medical doctor John Jackson from Adelaide, to find out if he too had an invitation. But no invite he said bluntly and that was that. We could only guess at the problem, something to do with Canberra’s virulent anti-Beijing policies at the time maybe. Even so, and as a former China hand who had the language, I did not want the chance to slip away. I invited Jackson to contact me if he came to Tokyo later and, as a result of misunderstandings, he ended up staying in my apartment. There by chance, I discovered he had in fact been invited to Beijing but had been instructed by someone in Canberra not to accept. When Iasked whether he did in fact want to go, and got the answer I wanted, I immediately sent a telegram in his name to the sports authorities in Beijing saying he now wanted to go to China with his team and with one correspondent (you guessed who). The reply was immediate: Come with your team, and the correspondent.

But by then there were only three players left in Japan and they lacked funds. So in exchange for the mini-scoop I was offering to provide, my newspaper promised to pay the team’s fares to China, via Hongkong. And so off we went, first for pingpong games in Guangzhou, then Shanghai — where we were told that another Australian correspondent, a Mr Ssuu.. would be joining us — and on to Beijing. There too we got the headlines we wanted — 'first Australian newsmen into China since 1949’ — and our select meeting with Premier Zhou. Mr Ssuu.. it turned out was the feisty Max Suich of the Fairfax media group who had demanded and finally got a visa after discovering what I had been up to. The only other correspondent allowed in with us was a Vince Matthews of the Melbourne Herald (Melbourne was the base of the one pro-Beijing Communist party in Australia).

Back in Japan the FCCJ organised a special event where we would relate our impressions. Roderick spoke about China as being ‘an innocent world in which the religion called Marxism, Leninism and Mao Tsetung thought remans untarnished’. Reynolds said he was impressed by the ‘intensity of the faces’ as seen through the camera. Suich said how disappointed he was (though at first glance he added). He wondered perceptively how the intellectual strength of the Chinese would survive the damage of the Cultural Revolution. I had to agree. John Rich, the diplomat as ever, said little.

Reynolds summed it up saying that to expect us to be experts on China was like trying to write Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire after covering ten days of the Games in the Colosseum.

Today we realise just how important our visits had been. Zhou, a moderate in the Chinese leadership, had long struggled with the Cultural Revolution hardliners. He had organised what is now called the Pingpong Diplomacy in a desperate effort to outflank them. It worked, and together with another moderate, Deng Xiaoping, had pulled China back from the precipice. It’s nice to think that some of us might have helped.

Back in our home countries the effect was dramatic. The publicity given pingpong diplomacy opened the way for Henry Kissinger and then Richard Nixon to make their policy about-turns over China. Back in Australia the government had been forced to do the same, and may well have lost its 1972 election as a result.

For the Club it was a chance to see itself as the gateway into China. But it immediately stumbled over the problem of membership for Taiwan media people. Not much has happened since.

GREGORY CLARK is a longtime regular member of the FCCJ, a Tokyo correspondent for The Australian and a former diplomat and academic.

Published in: July 2020

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