Chinese, US paddlers’ Ping Pong team-up in Houston sparks speculations on reopening of consulate
Published: Nov 22, 2021 11:43 PM
Photo: website of World Table Tennis

Photo: website of World Table Tennis

Two pairs of China-US table tennis players will debut and make history at the upcoming 2021 World Table Tennis Championships Finals that are set to kick off on Tuesday. The news, announced at an event celebrating the 50th anniversary of Ping Pong Diplomacy, surprised sports circles and prompted discussions on the future direction of China-US relations. 

The news was announced on Monday local time in Houston, Texas, a US city that has witnessed several ups and downs in China-US relations. Chinese player Lin Gaoyuan will pair with Lily Zhang while Kanak Jha will team up with Wang Manyu, who recently won the Olympic women's team table tennis gold medal in Tokyo.  

This will be the first time that the US holds the championships, set to take place from November 23 to 29 in Houston.

The first China-US joint sports pairings at such a high-level event are seen by observers as a sign of warming people-to-people interactions between the US and China after the top leaders of the two countries met virtually on November 15.

Friendly signal by both sides

The Chinese Table Tennis Association (CTTA) and the US Table Tennis Association jointly submitted the application to allow China-US pairs to compete with the International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF), and the ITTF Executive Committee approved the request on Sunday, according to a statement published on ITTF's official website. 

Qin Gang, Chinese ambassador to the US, also sent congratulations and best wishes on Twitter to the two China-US pairs on Monday, citing the Ping Pong Diplomacy of 50 years ago and wishing the players good luck in the coming games. 

Sports commentators said that this form of cooperation, though not rare in sports, usually requires both parties to show a clear willingness to cooperate, actively negotiate on arrangements and make proposals for official approval, in this case, by the ITTF. 

Due to the special nature of the mixed doubles and the high level of the four players, the two pairs have a chance of winning medals if they go through the appropriate training, Wang Dazhao, a Beijing-based senior sports commentator, told the Global Times on Monday.

Though Chinese players have teamed up with players from other countries and regions including South Korea and Germany at the World Table Tennis Championships, this is the first time that Chinese and American paddlers are competing in a joint team at this event.

"The pairing reflects the fact that China and the US are interconnected at many levels and have always worked closely together in many fields," Zhang Tengjun, an assistant research fellow at the China Institute of International Studies, told the Global Times on Monday. 

Such actions help nurture cultural exchanges, reduce misunderstandings and bring about mutual kindness between the two peoples, which is the bond of China-US diplomacy, Zhang said. 

"Once again, we are all witnessing the unique power of sports and how table tennis can create dialogues and foster mutual understanding," Steve Dainton, ITTF Group CEO, commented on the pairing during the ceremony in Houston. 

The reemergence of Ping Pong Diplomacy also allows China and the US to revisit a diplomatic case from 50 years ago, sending a positive signal on the trend in China-US relations, Diao Daming, an associate professor of international relations at the Renmin University of China in Beijing, told the Global Times on Monday.

Fifty years ago, China and the US came closer because top leaders of both countries made major decisions that were in the interests of both countries as well as in the regional and global interests, Diao said. 

"If some US politicians continue to be bent on competition and confrontation, and refuse to cooperate, sports won't work like they did half a century ago," the expert said. 

Despite the virtual meeting of the two leaders and some positive interactions on trade and cooperation on climate change, the US has continued to make provocations over the island of Taiwan. 

Houston, a special location

The location of the event also prompted people to associate it with the direction of diplomatic relations between the two countries in the near future. Houston is a city that has a history of China-US cooperation and exchanges but also witnessed one of the most intense spats in 2020 when the Chinese Consulate-General was ordered to be closed by the US government.

This coincidence sparked expectations and speculation among the public and experts, including the possible reopening of the Chinese consulate in Houston.

The fact that China and the US chose Houston to commemorate the thawing of China-US relations on the 50th anniversary of the Ping Pong Diplomacy shows that careful arrangements have been made, Zhang noted.

"Houston is one of a few US cities that Chinese people are familiar with and have a pretty positive impression of. There is extensive room for people-to-people interaction, given the previous sports engagement and local cooperation at a deep level," Zhang said. 

Houston is a sister city of four Chinese cities - Shenzhen, Tianjin, Shanghai and Wuhan, while Houston itself boasts a large and vibrant Asian community with the second-largest Indochinese population in the US. A large number of Chinese sports fans have made Houston Rockets their home team because of Yao Ming, the first Chinese basketball player to be a first pick in the NBA draft. 

However, the close bond Chinese people felt with Rockets turned sour after then team manager Daryl Morey posted a tweet supporting Hong Kong rioters in 2019 against the backdrop of fierce China-US rivalry. 

Interaction between Chinese people and Houston have seen a drastic downturn since July 2020, when the US abruptly asked China to close its Consulate General in Houston, the first Chinese consulate China opened in the US. After that, China took countermeasures, closing the US' consulate in Chengdu, capital of Southwest China's Sichuan Province. 

Experts said that the special arrangement in Houston this time gave a hint that the reopening of the Houston consulate is now probably on the agenda. Coincidentally, the World Table Tennis Championship will be held in Chengdu in 2022 following Houston. 

The governments and peoples of both countries have expectations and practical needs in reopening the two consulates, Zhang said.

After the Houston consulate was closed, China suffered a lack of personnel in the southern US, as did the US in China's southwestern regions, Zhang said, adding that "resuming regional-level interaction and communicating directly with the people in these regions would be very beneficial to both sides."

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