US students revisit ping-pong diplomacy in Shanghai
Published: Jan 10, 2024 01:50 AM
Photo: Huang Lanlan/GT

Photo: Huang Lanlan/GT

At the ping-pong table, US player Margaux Reppert asked her Chinese partner Liu Wanying about receiving skills before their doubles match began. Liu answered Reppert’s questions in detail and gave her encouragement. The two 20-year-olds had relaxed and friendly smiles on their faces.

It’s hard to imagine that they had only met the night before. “I’m already great friends with my partner, she is really helpful,” Reppert says. “I think this is a great experience.”

Reppert is one of a US student delegation that recently came to China for a China-US youth ping-pong exchange, in the hope of promoting better understanding between youngsters of the two countries, just like the “ping-pong diplomacy” of 53 years ago, a milestone in the history of China-US relations.

From December 12 to 23, the Peking University table tennis team made up of 15 students and teachers was invited to visit the US to for the US Table Tennis Open in Los Angeles.  The mutual visits added a new chapter to the stories of China-US friendship that began with ping-pong diplomacy and new impetus to people-to-people exchanges, said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning at a press conference on Tuesday.

Youth friendship

Under the theme “Rekindling Ping-Pong Diplomacy, Renewing Youth Friendship,” the delegation members, 12 students from University of Virginia (UVA), had a friendly table tennis match with local students on Tuesday. 

Some of the US students have been playing table tennis for many years, and some others, including the 21-year-old Reppert, are newbies who have just practiced for a few months.

This is the fourth time that Reppert has come to China. Due to her interest in the country, she chose Putonghua as one of her undergraduate majors at UVA. The four visits have enabled the young American to witness China’s development in person. “It’s interesting to see how it has changed, and how much more modern it has become in just a few years,” she told the Global Times on Tuesday.

Before coming to China, the delegation learned about the history of ping-pong diplomacy, and its great influence on China-US relations. Reppert said that she very much cherishes this opportunity to visit China, to experience the charm of table tennis and communicate with young Chinese people.

“I would love to keep in touch with my partner,” she said. “It’s so interesting to hear about each other’s lifestyle as a college student, and see how there are a lot of similarities. In addition to the differences that we talked about, we found already a lot of similarities.”

Reppert’s partner Liu echoed this. “Ping pong is our medium,” said the 22-year-old student from Shanghai University of Sport (SUS). “We can talk about ping pong-related things, and we can also talk about many other topics, to learn more about each other’s life.”

Positive example

The 12 UVA students left the US for China on January 1. During the ongoing trip in China, they visited Hong Kong and Beijing, and Shanghai is their last stop.

The trip has followed almost the same path of a visit by the US table tennis delegation to China in 1971, said Justin O’Jack, chief representative of the UVA China Office. “It’s symbolic and meaningful,” O’Jack told the Global Times on Tuesday.

In April 1971, the US table tennis delegation conducted an ice-breaking visit to China at China’s invitation. Prior to that, the two countries had had no official contact at all for more than two decades. This was the start of the well-known ping-pong diplomacy, which paved the way for the normalization of China-US relations in those hard years filled with ideological confrontations.

The Chinese table tennis players paid a return visit to the US in 1972. Bruce Reynolds, a UVA emeritus professor who was also at the friendly match on Tuesday, was then a young student who participated in the US’ reception work that year.

Reynolds told the Global Times that the number of UVA students studying Chinese language, history and culture is rising, and many students there “want to come to China.”

Now living in Shanghai after retiring, Reynolds said he hopes more US students will come to China to better understand the country and its people, and to feel their warmth. “When they go back to the US, [they can] tell their friends and family that China is just like any other country, and the US should work to improve its relationship with this wonderful country.”

Months ago, O’Jack and his colleagues pitched the idea of “revisiting ping-pong diplomacy” to the UVA leaders, who were “very supportive,” said O’Jack. “It’s no secret that US-China relations are not at a high point right now, although they’re getting better,” he told the Global Times. “We, as a university, should do our part to try to help that process forward and be a positive example,” he said.

“We hope that this is just the first of many more visits to come,” he added.

Strengthening ties

This year marks the 45th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and the US.

“We believe in the power of people-to-people relations to help strengthen the bilateral relations between our countries,” said Daniel Delk, deputy principal officer at the US Consulate General in Shanghai, who watched the friendly match at the scene.

“Our two presidents agreed on that (enhancing people-to-people exchanges) in San Francisco,” Delk told the Global Times, saying that he is pleased to see more civil exchanges taking place in the new year in fields including culture, arts, sport and education.

“We hope to continue to strengthen the ties between our students, to have more students from the US come and study in China, and to increase the number of Chinese students who are studying in the US,” said Delk. “This is a great way for us to help deepen mutual understanding.”

The friendly match was sponsored by the Shanghai People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries, Fudan University, SUS and UVA. It was organized by, and held at, the International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) Museum and China Table Tennis Museum.

Xu Yinsheng, honorary president of the ITTF and a witness of ping-pong diplomacy in the early 1970s, as well as renowned former table tennis world champions including Shi Zhihao, Wang Liqin and Zhang Yining, also attended the Tuesday event as guests.