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Ping-pong diplomat eyes net gains

By LINDA DENG in Tigard, Oregon | China Daily | Updated: 2021-04-13 09:42
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Guests pose for a group photo during a special event to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Ping-Pong Diplomacy between China and the United States in Shanghai, China, April 10, 2021. [Photo/Xinhua]

Baby of the visiting US team puts faith in links between people to shore up ties

"We were just kind of in the right place at the right time. And that's what we did in our small way of table tennis," said Judy Hoarfrost, who at just 15 played a role in the birth of Ping-Pong Diplomacy.

Hoarfrost was the youngest player in a nine-member US table tennis team that arrived in Beijing on April 10, 1971, for a tour that helped break the ice between the United States and China.

Relations between the countries had been frozen for more than 20 years before the visit.

"The little ball moves the big ball" is a phrase that Chinese people often use when referring to that historic period, when table tennis became an unlikely diplomatic tool. Fifty years later, the little ball is still moving in developing ties between different countries.

"Now we are celebrating the 50th anniversary. I think the significance of commemorating the Ping-Pong Diplomacy today is to understand the importance of people-to-people exchanges in establishing bonds, human bonds between peoples," Hoarfrost told China Daily.

"It helps us to establish communication and hopefully up the chain of politics to help our national leaders to also establish communication and to establish cooperation to solve our mutual challenges."

Hoarfrost said now more than ever the US and China should work together.

"We have issues of keeping the globe safe and peaceful. Through the pandemic, it really makes it clear that what happens on one side of the world affects the rest of the world," she said.

"We also have the environment that we really need to work on preserving and for the future generations, so the stakes are never higher than they are now."

With the return of tensions between the two countries in recent years, Hoarfrost said she doesn't like the current atmosphere in which each side views the other as an adversary, because "we have so much in common, and we need to build on what we have in common".

Compared with 1971, "we are so much more interrelated now, and we need to continue to move forward with this good foundation of communication that we have now", she said.

Hoarfrost expects she would have traveled to China this year to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the team's visit if it had not been for the pandemic. "But there will be another chance and I'm looking forward to when we do that. I also look forward to the Olympic Games in Beijing and for our athletes to participate there."

For a long time after the trip, Hoarfrost was known as the girl who went to China, and the trip itself became part of school history books that Hoarfrost's children would show her from time to time many years later.

In Beijing, the team was welcomed by then-premier Zhou Enlai.

"The most memorable moment was Zhou shaking hands with me and looking into my eyes," Hoarfrost recalled.

'New page' opened

She said Zhou told the team: "You have opened a new page in Sino-US relationships."

The Associated Press then chose a picture of her shaking hands with Zhou and splashed it around the world.

"I am really proud of the China trip, something that has helped define my life. I am always the girl who went to China, always a ping-pong diplomat," Hoarfrost said.

On April 11, 1972, the Chinese table-tennis team paid a return visit to the US. Hoarfrost accompanied her Chinese friends for two weeks. They visited New York and the White House in Washington, and took a steamboat ride on the Mississippi River. Disneyland in California was also on the list of attractions for the visiting team.

The mutual visits broke the ice after two decades of estranged Sino-US relations and eventually led to the normalization of bilateral ties.

"Today's world is totally different from that in 1971. Ping-Pong Diplomacy cannot be replicated, but its implications deserve to be cherished," said Lyu Xiang, a Sino-US relations expert of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

In 1997, Hoarfrost was inducted into the USA Table Tennis Hall of Fame. That year she made her second trip to China for the 25th anniversary of Ping-Pong Diplomacy.

Xinhua contributed to this story.

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