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In California, a big salute to Ping-Pong Diplomacy

By LIU YINMENG  in Los Angeles | China Daily Global | Updated: 2022-03-22 10:09
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Zhang Ping, China's Consul General in LA (left), Virginia Sung, CEO at USA Table Tennis, play friendship match with Dell and Connie Sweeris (right) during an event that commemorates Chinese table tennis team's first visit in the US in 1972 on Sunday in Rosemead, California. [Photo by Liu Yinmeng / for]

Connie Sweeris still remembers the anxiety she felt as she entered the Chinese mainland from Hong Kong 51 years ago. Her uneasiness faded soon after she enjoyed a friendly luncheon in Guangzhou, where Sweeris and her teammates kicked off a weeklong journey across a country they knew little about at the time. 

The then-23-year-old table tennis player was part of the American delegation that visited China after a chance encounter between American player Glenn Cowan and three-time world champion Zhuang Zedong of China when they were on the same bus in Japan in April 1971.

Their trip kicked off what became known as Ping-Pong Diplomacy, which laid the foundation for the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and the US.  A year after the Americans' trip, the Chinese table tennis team, led by Zhuang, toured the US, making stops in multiple cities, including Los Angeles, and met with then-President Richard Nixon at the White House. 

"It was a real thrill for us to be able to cross that bridge and be able to play these friendship matches," Sweeris told China Daily on Sunday after playing such a match  during an event to mark the 50th anniversary of the Chinese team's first visit to the US. 

Close to 200 people, including Chinese Consul General in Los Angeles Zhang Ping, US Representative Judy Chu, officials from the US Olympics Committee, USA Table Tennis and members of the US Table Tennis team as well as representatives from a cross-section of society participated in the celebration.

The event included friendly matches between teams made up of community members, local young table tennis players, Chinese students and the Consulate General staff. The competitions were followed by an award ceremony in the evening. 

Friendship between the peoples is the foundation of state-to-state relations, and Ping-Pong Diplomacy is a wonderful story in the history of China-US relations, Zhang said.

As the bilateral relationship stands at a critical juncture, it's important more than ever "to carry forward the legacy of the Ping-Pong Diplomacy", the envoy said.  

"Today the big ball of China-US relations still needs the force of many small balls, like the ping-pong ball, to move it forward," Zhang said. He said that competition should not "dominate" the future of the Sino-US relationship. Instead, friendship should be  a "tenacious bond" linking people of the two nations. 

Chu said the bilateral relationship is one of the most important in the world, impacting not just economies but also world peace. 

"And that is why I believe we need to continue to strengthen this relationship moving forward," she said.

Dragomir Cioroslan, director of international strategies and development for the US Olympic & Paralympic Committee, told China Daily that he believes Ping-Pong Diplomacy was the most important diplomatic event of the 20th century and changed the course of history by bringing together two important countries. 

With the help of a sport like table tennis, the US and China have shown the world that the spirit of cooperation transcends language and cultural barriers, he said. 

"I hope the legacy of the Ping-Pong Diplomacy remains an inspiration for all of us. As we move forward in the future, I like very much the motto of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics Games, 'Together for a Shared Future,'" he added. 

The slogan of the 1971 exhibition matches was "friendship first, competition second", Sweeris said. People-to-people exchanges "break down barriers" and enhance understanding between people. "That's what diplomacy is all about," she said.

"You don't have to become enemies just because you don't have the same ideologies, and that's what's great about sports: You can have that people-to-people contact, and you begin to connect with each other," Sweeris said.

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