On April 10, 1971, members of the US Table Tennis team made a historic trip to China to play ping pong, a significant step in thawing the icy relations between the United States and the People’s Republic of China. The first official American delegation to set foot in China since 1949 was so successful it prompted one member of the American team to say, “The people are just like us. They are real, they’re genuine, they got feelings.”
Ten months later, President Nixon visited the PRC, and two months later, Mao Zedong came to the United States.
Today, the so-called ping pong diplomacy of the 1970s has yielded to ping pong capitalism of the 21st century. As this New York Times article points out, China has been absolutely dominant in ping pong at the Olympics, winning 28 of the 32 gold medals up for grabs since the sports debut in 1988. As national sports bodies note their lack of world-class table tennis players, as well as the glut of very talented table tennis athletes in China, there has been a definite flow of table tennis talent from China (where the supply is) to other countries (where the demand is).
The Times also stated that of the 172 ping pong players at the Rio Olympics this past August, at least 44 were born in China. Of that 44, only 6 of them represented China. At the Rio Olympics, Chinese-born players represented such countries as Australia, the Congo, France, Qatar, Slovakia, Sweden and Turkey.
Liu Guoliang, the head coach of the Chinese national table tennis team, said that this is normal. “There are a lot of Chinese talents and the competition is intense. Some have difficulties in putting on the national uniform. So in order for them to realize their dreams, they would want to represent other countries.”
According to the Times article, this trend became visible in Europe in the 1980s, when Ding Yi moved to Europe to represent Austria. As Massimo Constantini of the Italian team said after he lost to Ding in a match prior to the 1988 Olympics, “We were shocked, actually, to be playing against someone Chinese.”
Renowned political scientist, Joseph Nye, calls it soft power, the means of a nation to influence and attract by means other than coercion. And while China increased its global appeal thanks to the 2008 Summer Olympics, and is investing heavily in the infrastructure of other countries, for example, it’s still a challenge, as Nye states below:
China has been investing billions of dollars to improve its soft power. (But) soft power is not something that can solely be produced by governments, it comes through civil society. China is not going to have the soft power that the U.S. has. Its generating of propaganda does not bring strong credibility.
So maybe it’s through sports, again, where China makes inroads in its attempts to make friends. Is it 1972 again? Is ping pong China’s path to our hearts?