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Young generation called on to carry torch of 1971 Ping-Pong Diplomacy

By CHANG JUN in San Francisco | | Updated: 2023-12-18 11:23
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Student athletes from Peking University play a friendship match with local US ping pong players on Dec 15 in Fremont, California. Chang Jun / China Daily

It will take both China and the United States and people from all walks of life — the young generation in particular — to continue advancing bilateral relations despite differences, said attendees at an anniversary event Friday.

The event, titled "52nd Anniversary of Ping-Pong Diplomacy", celebrated the iconic games between China and the US in 1971, which were a prelude to the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1979.

The event Friday was hosted by the Chinese Consulate General in San Francisco, Peking University, and Table Tennis America.

Among hundreds of awestruck audience members at a ping-pong facility in Fremont, California, was 11-year-old Ryan Ma, who skipped his morning classes during a hectic finals week to be there.

A ping-pong player since he was 6, Ryan said he was there to meet "legendary Ping-Pong Diplomacy witnesses", "China's big-named champions, Liu Wei and Ding Ning", and student players from Peking University.

The diplomacy witness whom Ma was curious about was Connie Sweeris, who was a US table tennis team member. Sweeris and her teammates embarked on a historic, ice-breaking journey. They played friendly matches with their Chinese counterparts and witnessed the initiation, orchestration and implementation of Ping-Pong Diplomacy.

Connie Sweeris, American table tennis champion who went on the ice-breaking trip to China in 1971, waits for a commemorative event to start with her husband Dell Sweeris, on Dec 15 in Fremont, California. Chang Jun / China Daily

The Chinese people were very different then in their outlooks and outfits, said Sweeris, "but all of them were very friendly". Although there was a language barrier — Sweeris knew only two Chinese phrases, ni hao and xie xie ni, "hello" and "thank you", respectively — she recognized the unfathomable goodwill and sincerity of the Chinese people everywhere.

"Let's not underestimate the significant role a smile, a handshake, a friendly gesture can make in enhancing the growth of some big relationship," said Zhang Jianmin, Chinese consul general in San Francisco. "China and the US were different then; China and the US are different today; and we will be different tomorrow. But what is important is that despite the differences, it is important to reach out to each other with mutual respect."

Amy Tong, California's secretary of government operations, who represented Governor Gavin Newsom, and her three colleagues, agreed.

Continuous people-to-people and cultural exchanges are the foundation that California is built on, she said, adding that the Golden State is home to more than 2 million Chinese Americans, a place where diversity and respect of other cultures prevail.

"Despite our differences, we have so many commonalities, such as we have a desire for mutual respect, we have the desire for mutual prosperity, and we have the desire to continue our relationship," Tong said.

Following Newsom's trip to China in October, California has continued to launch subnational and regional programs to strengthen bilateral cooperation.

"I was sent by Governor Newsom to attend the fifth China-US Sister Cities Conference (in November)," said Tong, in giving an example.

Sweeris called on the young generation, such as the students from Peking University, to join forces and continue the ping-pong legacy through programs like people-to-people exchanges.

"The legacy can be carried out by people like you. Through our communications, we are able to go forward," she added.

"That is exactly the purpose of this visit by Peking University," echoed Zhang, adding that the young generations of the two countries will decide the future of the China-US relationship.

Liu Wei, a seven-time table tennis world champion and now a professor in the Department of Physical Education and Research at Peking University, said, "It's my responsibility to promote friendship through playing ping-pong as an athlete, to teach my students to better understand and continue Ping-Pong Diplomacy now.

"I admire the contributions of our senior ping-pong players, those trailblazers who in the 1970s participated in Ping-Pong Diplomacy, such as Zheng Minzhi, Liang Geliang," said Liu. "On a personal level, I joined events marking the 35th and 40th anniversaries of Ping-Pong Diplomacy. Now, this year's 52nd anniversary."

Training students and preparing them for bilateral exchanges "is of great significance", said Liu. "Visits and exchanges between our young generations will help them open their eyes and minds. Eventually, they will understand why we should celebrate (anniversaries) and how to pass on the torch of friendship."

Fang Fang, vice-president of Peking University, said people like sports not only because of their physical appeal, but more importantly, because of the values and spirit that sport embodies and highlights.

"For example, fair competition, respect for opponents, going all out to win, and mutual help that transcends winning or losing," he added. "Friendship comes first; competition, second."

Ishara Madurangi, 33, Pakistan's ace female table tennis player, who was among the enthusiasts, said the Ping-Pong Diplomacy story is touching.

"Young friends from different countries can foster mutual understanding through playing sports together," she said.

Zhang Xueen, a junior at Peking University Law School, traveled with her five teammates from China for three visits: Washington DC, San Francisco and Los Angeles.

"We are overwhelmed by the warmth and enthusiasm from the American people," said Zhang.

Her next stop is Los Angeles, where the team will play in the USA Tennis Open Championships (Dec 16-21) in Ontario, California.

"I'm thrilled to have this kind of face-to-face interactions and exchanges with US peers. In DC, we played matches with a team from the University of Virginia," Zhang said. "I'm excited that they will pay a visit to our university early next year."

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