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The Republic of China Olympic Team competing at the 1960 Olympics “Under Protest”

On December 2, 2016, Donald Trump took a phone call from the president of Taiwan, Tsai Ing-wen. She was simply offering her congratulations to the American president-elect. And yet, this simple phone call established the possibility of a radically different Sino-American diplomatic relationship.

Wang Dong, an associate professor at the School of International Studies at Peking University, was quoted in The New York Times as saying, “this is a wake-up call for Beijing — we should buckle up for a pretty rocky six months or year in the China-U.S. relationship. There was a sort of delusion based on overly optimistic ideas about Trump. That should stop.”

In fact, it was 38 years ago today (December 15) when then President Jimmy Carter officially recognized The People’s Republic of China, and Beijing as the sole government of China. A year later, the US cut off ties with Taiwan.

But in the 1950s and the 1960s, neither the People’s Republic of China (PRC), nor The Republic of China (ROC) in Taiwan were officially recognized by the United States. The International Olympic Committee, however, recognized both. The IOC invited the PRC and the ROC to the 1952 Helsinki Olympics. The ROC withdrew in protest of PRC’s Olympic debut. In subsequent Olympics, the ROC decided to participate, so it was the PRC’s turn to boycott the Games, which they did until 1980. In 1952, the president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), Avery Brundage, was viewed by the PRC as a puppet of the United States.

Brundage was the president of the IOC in the 1950s and 1960s, and had to deal first hand with the China issue. As the head of the Olympic Movement, and thus symbolic proselytizer of the Olympic Charter, Brundage wanted to “contribute to building a peaceful and better world” by ensuring as many different nations participate in friendly sports competition. In his mind, he needed a logical way to bring both the PRC and the ROC to the Games.

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Avery Brundage

To that end, he got the IOC to vote and approve a decision that would force the ROC Olympic Committee to change their name from The Republic of China to either Taiwan or Formosa, which is another name for the island of Taiwan. According to David Maraniss and his seminal book, Rome 1960: The Olympics That Changed the World, Brundage’s argument was that the smaller ROC was in effect not able to represent the vast majority of China.

Brundage and the Marquess of Exeter, the strongest Western proponent of the name change within the IOC, said it was a practical decision arrived at free from ideological pressure and without political overtones. The political act came from those who insisted on calling it China when it was not China, they argued. “We cannot recognize a Chinese committee in Taiwan any more than we can recognize an Italian committee in Sicily or a Canadian committee in Newfoundland,” Brundage said.

As Brundage quickly found out, the United States government was not keen on the IOC interfering in international diplomacy, and viewed Brundage, to his surprise, as a communist sympathizer. As Maraniss wrote, “the U. S. government, which recognized Chiang’s Nationalist China but not Mao’s mainland government, viewed this as a major symbolic victory for the communist bloc, and thought Brundage had been naïve and manipulated by the Soviets, who had initiated the proposal.”

Brundage was a puzzled man. He believed himself to be a staunch anti-communist. And yet he found his name bandied about in the press as a communist sympathizer, with calls for his resignation from the IOC. But Brundage remained in role. The ROC competed as Formosa at the 1960 Olympics, and Taiwan at the 1964 Olympics.

In 1979, after the United States officially recognized the PRC, the IOC recognized the Chinese Olympic Committee from the PRC, and passed a resolution that the ROC team from Taiwan be designated Chinese Taipei at subsequent Olympics.

So you can understand why Taiwan hasn’t felt all that respected in the latter half of the 20th century. And this has continued despite the fact that Taiwan emerged as one of the great Asian economic stories in the past 30 years, and is currently the 22nd largest economy according to the IMF.

So the phone call that was accepted by President-elect Donald Trump was not just a simple courtesy call. For the tiny island nation of Taiwan, aka The Republic of China, it was a gesture of respect and recognition.

You can bet, though, this political football game is far from over.

 

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Tom Hanks as Forrest Gump

 

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.”

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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?

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In 2001, former vice-premier Li Lanqing and former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger played ping-pong to mark the 30th anniversary of “Sino-US ping-pong diplomacy.” Xu Jingxing