Considerable attention was given two months ago to the fortieth anniversary of President Nixon’s visit to China, but this month marked four decades since an event which, though it seems little-remembered now, was also a landmark in its way. During the 1971 tour that signaled a dramatic change of US-PRC relations after two decades in the deep freeze, the American table-tennis team extended to its Chinese counterpart an invitation to come to the United States.
In April 1972, the Chinese team accordingly traveled to these shores, and a match between American and Chinese players was arranged before an enthusiatic crowd a few miles northeast of Washington. The Baltimore Sun, in an article published earlier this month, takes up the story:
Forty years ago this month, Maryland began its engagement with China by becoming the site of an iconic exchange in sports diplomacy, a groundbreaking ping-pong match between China and the U.S. The event was held at theUniversity of Maryland, College Parkon April 17, 1972, less than two months after President Nixon’s return from China.
Sitting in the stands in Cole Field House to watch the visiting Chinese delegation play a team of University of Maryland students was the president’s daughter, Tricia Nixon; Richard Solomon, a China scholar and future assistant secretary of state for East Asia Pacific affairs; and Robert Hormats, a Baltimore native and current under secretary of state who was then an economic advisor to national security advisor Henry Kissinger.
The University of Maryland’s role in the celebrated milestone of “ping pong diplomacy” signaled the state’s early emergence as a pioneer in the promotion of burgeoning U.S.-China ties. Then-Gov. Harry Hughes, who assumed office less than three weeks after the official normalization of relations in 1979, adroitly focused on building ties with China as one of his first initiatives.
Working with University of Maryland president John Toll, Mr. Hughes became in 1980 the first U.S. governor to visit China. Together with Chinese Vice-Premier Wan Li, he forged the first U.S.-China sister-state agreement, linking Maryland andChina’sAnhui province.
This was the start of a highly successful tour of the United States by the Chinese table-tennis team which, like the American team’s exploits in 1971, gave the sport a considerable although somewhat short-lived upswing in popularity here, and, more importantly, was no small factor in creating a spirit of friendliness and goodwill between the two superpowers. It is worth keeping in mind in these times.
Robert Nedelkoff is a writer with the Richard Nixon Foundation.