Ping-Pong Diplomacy: The Rematch
Nixon Library, June 10-11-12, 2008
By Tim Boggan, USATT Historian, and original 1971 Ping Pong Diplomat
In 1971, the Chinese surprised the World by inviting a U.S. table tennis team attending the World Championships in Nagoya, Japan to come to China immediately after the tournament, all expenses paid. “Friendship First, Competition Second”—that was the trip’s mantra. It was an outstanding diplomatic move alright, for these guests of China comprised the first group of Americans to enter that country in over 20 years. There followed in 1972 the historic visit of President Nixon to China (“Better off in conversation than conflict”), and the reciprocal visit of the Chinese to the U.S.
For 37 years now, this “Ping-Pong Diplomacy” adventure has been remembered and celebrated, both in the United States and China, in periodic commemorative reunions. The latest of these was the elaborately staged “Rematch,” held June 10-12 at the Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, CA, that seemed to generate almost as much media interest as the U.S. Team’s ‘71 China Odyssey, or Oddity.
Advancing the process of unification between the two countries that had been started by President Nixon those many years ago was a select group of 2008 organizers. First, those connected with the Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace Foundation: Board of Directors Chairman Kris Elftmann, Executive Director (The Rev. Canon) John H. Taylor, Assistant Director Richard (Sandy) Quinn, and Director of Marketing Anthony Curtis. Among the many affable volunteers assisting them were Chris, Evie, George, and John’s wife Kathy. Then, those offering support from the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries (CPAFFC): Vice President Madame Li Xiaolin, and Deputy Consul Generals Ms. Huang Xaiojian and Xu Chaoyou from the Los Angeles Consulate of the People’s Republic of China (PRC).
And representing our U.S. Association: Michael D. Cavanaugh, Interim (and I hope permanent) CEO, USA Table Tennis. All of these people prepared extensively and followed through admirably. On each separate occasion during the three-day celebration, friendship remarks from officials were tirelessly de rigueur.
The player/diplomats representing China were famous world-class competitors, uh, worthy opponents: Liang Geliang, former World Men’s and two-time Mixed Doubles Champion, who was on the visiting Chinese team to the U.S. in ’72; World Team Cup member Zhang Lei; China’s current teenage star Song Shichao; and Ms. Qiao Yunping, World Women’s Doubles Champion in ‘93. Among the helpful Chinese interpreters were Eric LiuYi and Ajay River (a.k.a. Jiang YingShan).
Those being treated as famous, first class, from the U.S. were ’71 Diplomacy veterans Tim Boggan, George Braithwaite, Rufford Harrison (accompanied by wife Marty), and Judy Bochenski Hoarfrost (accompanied by husband Dan), plus stalwart U.S. Olympian/World Team members Tawny Banh (our hard-working Team Coordinator), Mark Hazinski, and Khoa Nguyen.
The Official Welcome events began with a late Monday, June 9th get-together dinner at El Torito—no, the restaurant didn’t serve Chinese, but it was conveniently located next to our Ayres Hotel, and, after so much travel-time, rest for the weary had to be as requisite as food.
By 9:30 Tuesday morning we’d arrived at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, and, joined by four U.S. Marines, all had gathered round the lobby’s Presidential Seal for a Welcome Ceremony. The Chinese and American contingents were introduced. There were short speeches by the various officials urging friendly relations, mutual concerns, including at this come-together time Executive Director Taylor’s eloquent show of sympathy for the devastation the China earthquake had wrought.
Then we moved on, joined a very knowledgeable docent for a too quick Tour of the Nixon Museum. Among the highlights I noted: Nixon, having graduated 3rd in his class at Duke Law School, went on (with money earned playing poker?) to finance an election campaign against California Congressman Jerry Vorhees. Then it was on to the Vice-President section and such headlines as “Ike and Dick Sure to Click.” Nixon was said to be the “busiest V-P ever,” for he campaigned in every state, and visited many countries. Some thought, hearing it on radio, that he’d won the much talked about debate with John Kennedy, but on TV he just didn’t look his best. I catch a glimpse of Billy Graham on a screen above saying, “There is a future life.”
Six Crises—that was the first of Nixon’s ten books. By 1968 he was back campaigning for the Presidency. “There are leaders who have made a difference,” he said. “Not because they wished it, but because they willed it.” I walked on past what we might have seen years ago in Peking’s Great Hall of the People—a Chinese silk cat (with double-sided embroidery)—then entered a room where stood realistic plaster of paris, 80-pound figures of statesmen dressed in real clothes then epoxied over. Khrushchev was there, as was Golda Meir, Anwar El-Sadat, De Gaulle, Churchill…and Mao pointing a finger at Chou En-lai(as if to say, “Let the Americans in”). Then on to the Lincoln sitting room where Kissinger had hurried in to tell Nixon that the Table Tennis Team had gotten the invitation to go to China…and where later Nixon had signed his president’s letter of resignation. Ah, a Lincoln Continental, the presidential limousine—armor-plated, bullet-proof glass, could go 40 miles with four flat tires (would that do any good?). Then, reluctantly, out of the museum, passing along the way the Watergate section—at the moment just a large totally empty room with vacant walls.
“What was Nixon like?” I got to ask Kathy Taylor, his Personal Secretary and in his last years his Chief of Staff. She was with the President in China, where he’d go repeatedly and was always treated as “an old friend.” Of course Nixon wasn’t perfect, she said, he was human. But he was smart, kind, and, though he was a serious workaholic, he had a great sense of humor. She felt the media really did kick him around—and “Plastic Pat,” his wife, she, too, was a nice, warm person and, as the appellation suggests, treated unfairly.
Out past attractive gardens we noted the house the President was born in. In the distance I heard strains of “When Johnny Comes Marching Home.” The Marines presented their colors at the Nixon Memorial, and Madame Li laid an appropriate wreath.
Following a box lunch, off we went to another library—the Huntington. Here, though I personally wanted to see the European paintings (like Gainsborough’s “The Blue Boy”), the art galleries weren’t open, and anyway, though I’d seen in China the famed Suzhou Chinese Garden, the appropriate thing to do here with the visiting Chinese was take a pleasant walk, tour the poetic “Garden of Flowing Fragrance.” As the brochure said, “Ornamented with the same motifs, architecture and furniture merge with garden plants and rocks [and water].” All is meant to be balanced, harmonious. Just like the “Rematch” itself.
That evening at the Gala Dinner, General Brent Scowcroft gave the keynote speech. He’d been a member of President Nixon’s advance team to China, then had accompanied him on his historic trip there in 1972. He’d also served as National Security Advisor both to Nixon and George H. W. Bush. He remarked that since both China and the U.S. thought that hostility between the two countries was a mistake, this Ping-Pong opening resulted in a “masterpiece of diplomacy.” In February of 1972, Nixon and Chou En-lai, in opposition to Soviet hegemony, signed the Shanghai Communique in which, as Scowcroft put it, the U.S. “did not challenge” China’s claim that there was but one China. This was a significant breakthrough at the time in normalizing U.S.-China relations. Later there were blocks—the Tiananmen Square massacre for one. Thus, said Scowcroft, the recovery phase was gradual. Now, with the economic rise of China, and the spread of globalization, China had entered the economic and political mainstream, and was entwined in a challenging way with the U.S. Indeed, just a couple of days after Scowcroft gave this speech, it was perhaps no surprise that Taiwan and China, agreed “to set up permanent offices in each other’s territories for the first time in nearly six decades.”
Comic relief at this Dinner was provided by a mercifully short exhibition featuring Liang Geliang playing with progressively smaller paddles against Boggan who occasionally seemed in danger of lurching headfirst into the chest or bosom of someone in the ringed-round crowd.
The plan for Day Two was “Fun & Games”—carried out, as in the other festivities, in the Grand Ballroom of the Library’s East Room, a full-size replica of the Presidential East Room in Washington. This meant that Judy, George, and I were up at 5:00 a.m. readying ourselves for interviews while later Tawny, Mark, and Khoa, assisted by George, gave Youth Clinic lessons to kids of all ages, and were available for “Challenge the Champ” matches at $5 a try.
Collegians played a “semi’s”: on one table, USC players opposed one another—with lobber Adam Bobrow downing (literally—the match had to be stopped) an injured Amitabha Ghosh; on the other table it was two UCLA players—with Alan Quach getting the better of Anthony Liu. Later, in the next day’s final, Adam, a personable theater major, delighted the crowd, hamming it up with his lobs and antics at the expense of Alan who gamely kept his cool as he slashed futilely at high-bouncing balls. Two skilled youngsters also were later to play a crowd-pleasing match—with the older girl, Christy Divita, besting the younger boy, Alan Tanti.
That evening Deputy Consul General Ms. Huang Xaiojian hosted a Reception and Dinner at the PRC’s Los Angeles Consulate where Rufford Harrison—he who back in ’71 had personally received the Invitation for the Team to enter China—gave an excellent speech as to how “Ping-Pong Diplomacy” originated.
Thursday morning, 9:00 sharp: the colorful “Rematch” performance gets underway signaling the climactic matches to come. The Marine Color Guard stands strong, the American and Chinese National Anthems are played—with professional singer Robbie Britt doing stars and stripes honors. The players are introduced, there’s an exchange of gifts, VIPs make their remarks (“We all win as long as a dialogue continues with these two great countries”…“People show leaders the way to peace”), and Kris and John make sure Mike and Sandy’s indispensable efforts are acknowledged.
Then out come 15 dancing girls all dressed in red, faces accented in bright make-up. Each is carrying a fan that seems to open with a little explosion, each wears a small drum and attached to each of their two drumsticks is a flowing scarf. They artfully follow choreographed formations as they accompany their movements beating sticks and drums. Other acts follow: flag holders; acrobat/tumblers; four legged lions or, rather, costumed performers bent then reared up to simulate these traditionally ritualized animals.
Now the looked-forward-to table tennis acts.
First up: Qiao vs. Tawny. As expected, some in the audience are uneducated—they applaud when a player fails to return serve. But they’re enthusiastic. Our Olympian, Tawny, is not intimidated. She wins the first, as her opponent’s backhand fails her. Qiao smiles to self as if to say, “Ridiculous. So I haven’t been feeling so well, get it together.” And she does. Is up 6-1 in the second…then wins the third. But Tawny’s back with a 6-0 start in the fourth…only to lose the fifth, despite some strong off-the-bounce counter-play. China 1—U.S. 0.
Next, Khoa, who’s fresh off winning the Meiklejohn tournament at Laguna Woods on Sunday, vs. Zhang. This is a fun contest, especially after Khoa rallies from 2-0 down to send the match into the fifth. Our guy’s up 10-6 match point, but then what happens? It’s…10-7…8…9…10-all! This, after some exhibition counter-play, is carrying Friendship too far? Not really. Khoa wins 12-10. China 1—U.S. 1.
Now, Mark’s turn vs. Song. This match is a demonstration of skill shots—up-at- the-table exchanges and blocks, back from the table forehand counters, and, even more appealing to the spectators, Mark’s grunting smashes and Song’s complementary lob returns that bring them to 10-all in the fourth. Then Song scores with a spectacular forehand, and Mark dumps his serve return into the bottom of the net. China 2—U.S. 1
O.K., here’s the big one—the one that’s been hyped, the REMATCH: George vs. Liang. Maybe Braithwaite’s already worn out? Know how many interviews he’s given this morning? 1-2-3-4-5-6-7! Tomorrow in the Los Angeles Times, they’ll be a big spread on him. And rightly so. He’s not gonna beat Liang, but he’ll play a respectable 11-8 in the fourth match. George, a USATT Hall of Famer, shows one reason why he’s recently been given the Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award. He knows how to entertain the crowd.
Coming out to the table he announces that if Liang wants to continue to be his friend, this match will be “Friendship First, Friendship Second.” Then, having been given the serve, George high-tosses the ball, but slyly, quickly serves another ball he’s held hidden in his hand. Just kidding—in the spirit of Friendship he won’t take the point. A pattern of play is soon established: George loops topspin to Liang’s changing but usually heavy backspin. Only when Liang throws in an occasional topspin can George outright hit the ball withforce. Once, he delights the crowd by faking such a hit, then drops the ball just over the net. George wins the first game, loses the second, and so returns to that side of the table where he’d started. “This is the winning side,” he says confidently after being nearly blitzed in the last game. Some of the points are long-lasting, for Liang is relentlessly steady with his returns. “This is hard work,” says George in mid-point. Those watching agree, sympathize—so much so that, as the match ends, the crowd as one gives the players a standing ovation. George, smiling, waves appreciatively.
The REMATCH is a success; sport again proves to be a unifying force (“We helped change the world today”). Citizen diplomats, on to Beijing!