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Home >> China
UPDATED: 08:24, March 28, 2006
'Ping-pong diplomats' relive the moment
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For the past 35 years, American table tennis player Jack Howard has been wondering how China's ace player Li Furong made that killer smash during the US team's first visit to China in 1971.

Now, he finally got a chance to ask Li in person.

"His attack was amazing and, at that time, I didn't see the ball at all," joked the 72-year-old from California.

Led by Howard, the then US table tennis team captain, an American delegation is visiting China to mark the 35th anniversary of the renowned "ping-pong diplomacy" in Sino-US relations.

"I am overwhelmed coming back to China after 35 years," said Howard during a reception in Beijing yesterday.

"Everything has changed in China, but the friendship between the two nations will not change."

The US table tennis team's visit in 1971 took place after nearly two decades of estrangement and antagonism between the two countries. The team, consisting of 15 players and three journalists, made a breakthrough of historic proportions with their spur-of-the-moment visit to China.

The US team received a surprise invitation from China during the 31st World Table Tennis Championship in Japan on April 6; and responded by arriving in Beijing for a friendly competition, ushering in an era of "ping-pong diplomacy."

The visit, which was called "The ping heard round the world" by Time magazine, is seen as the first move in the game of high-stakes negotiations that ended hostility between the United States and China and paved the way for the normalization of bilateral relations.

From April 11 to 17, a curious American public followed the daily progress of the visit in newspapers and on television, as the Americans played and lost exhibition matches with their hosts, toured the Great Wall and the Summer Palace, and chatted with Chinese students and factory workers.

The then-Premier Zhou Enlai received the Americans at a banquet in the Great Hall of the People on April 14 and told the unlikely diplomats: "You have opened a new chapter in the relations of the American and Chinese people. I am confident that this beginning again of our friendship will certainly meet with the support of our two peoples."

The same day, the United States announced plans to lift a 20-year embargo on trade with China; and a Chinese table tennis team reciprocated by visiting the United States the same year.

In the fall of 1971, the- then US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger visited China, and Richard Nixon became the first American president to visit China in February 1972.

This time, seven members of the original US delegation have come on the visit, which started yesterday and ends on April 4.

The delegation will participate in a friendly tournament with Chinese players in Beijing tomorrow and then leave for Shanghai and Changshu in East China's Jiangsu Province for more matches and a series of activities.

"The tour has sparked our memories and makes me remember the days when the little ball changed the world," said US team member Tim Boggan.

The tour marks the third celebration of ping-pong diplomacy following the 25th and 30th anniversaries in 1996 and 2001.

Source: China Daily

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