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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
Weber Shandwick's City Soft Power Attributes
Weber Shandwick’s City Soft Power Attributes

Cities matter. They are flag carriers for nations, centers for universities and cultural influences, attractors for investment and tourists, as well as experiences for people living and visiting them. In other words, cities are brands. Thus explained Ian Rumsby, Chief Strategy Officer of Weber Shandwick Asia Pacific in a panel discussion entitled “The Growing Strength of Tokyo as a Global Brand”, on September 11, 2015.

At this talk for the American Chamber of Commerce Japan, Rumsby went on to explain that cities have assets, which contribute to their reputation over time. These assets sub-divide into two attributes: hard and soft power. Hard power is the military complex, the political stability and strength and the economic horsepower that support a city. Soft power is made up of attributes that encourage an environment of openness, diversity, livability, growth, sustainability, and creativity.

If Tokyo in 1964 was a successful opening act for Japan on the world stage, will Tokyo in 2020 be a thrilling revival?

As is cited in Weber Shandwick’s report, Engaging Cities – The Growing Relevance of Soft Power to Cities’ Reputations in Asia Pacific – the Tokyo Olympics will be the pinnacle of all the great investments Japan is making to build its brand.

In anticipation of the 2020 Olympics, “Tokyo is delivering on a number of smart investments that will enhance the sense of occasion for those visiting the city as much as the 13 million people who currently live there. Innovative sustainability initiatives are high on the agenda with the Tokyo Metropolitan Government laying out a clear 10-year plan to reduce