Icebreakers in China-U.S. ties share their priceless memories as ping-pong diplomacy turns 50
By Li Nan  ·  2021-04-02  ·   Source: NO.14 APRIL 8, 2021

Ring, ring…The ringing phone shattered the silence of the night, forcing Dell Sweeris, his eyes fogged with sleep, to pick up the receiver groggily. It was midnight of April 6, 1971, in Michigan, the United States, where he lived. 

His wife Connie was on the line. "I'm going to China," she said, bubbling with excitement. The 20-year-old, a table tennis player, was in Japan as part of the American team, taking part in the 31st World Table Tennis Championships in Nagoya. It was her last day of matches and she was supposed to be home soon.

"You are going to China!" Dell Sweeris exclaimed. At that time, the U.S. had no diplomatic ties with the People's Republic of China (PRC), a vacuum that had continued since the PRC was founded in 1949. Travel to the Chinese mainland was banned.

But on that historic day, Connie Sweeris and her fellow U.S. players were invited to play friendly matches with the Chinese team in China, all of it thanks to a miraculous mistake.

Connie Sweeris (fourth right, second row) and her fellow players of the U.S. table tennis team visit a section of the Great Wall in Beijing on April 12, 1971(COURTESY PHOTO)

An impromptu invitation 

Three days before the midnight call, Glenn Cowan, another American table tennis player taking part in the Nagoya tournament, hopped onto a shuttle bus to go to the practice hall. But the 19-year-old took the wrong bus meant for the Chinese team.

An awkward silence fell when Cowan saw the Chinese players inside and they saw the longhaired American, who that day had chosen to wear a sweater with U.S.A emblazoned conspicuously on the back.

Liang Geliang, who was on that bus as part of the Chinese team, talked about the encounter. "It was the first time I had gone abroad and met foreign players, especially Americans," Liang told Beijing Review. The 20-year-old Liang did what his team did: Sat in silence. No one spoke for almost 10 minutes.

But the atmosphere changed dramatically when Zhuang Zedong, then three-time world champion, walked toward Cowan. "Zhuang started a conversation with him, saying he was welcome to ride with us," Liang recalled. Zhuang also gave the American visitor a silkscreen painting as a souvenir from China.

And the exchange continued even after they arrived at the venue. Cowan wanted to practice with the Chinese players. "But he was too shy to propose a practice session with Zhuang. After all, Zhuang was a three-time world champion," Liang said.

Liang was the youngest in the Chinese team, and so Cowan approached him. "Practice?" he asked, swinging his racket.

Then the two young players from two sides of the globe played together briefly. "We had a good session. Everyone was happy. We all realized it wasn't just about table tennis. It was about friendship and establishing a bond," Liang said.

The ice between the two teams was broken and over the next few days, the U.S. players mentioned several times that they wanted to visit China. It reached the ears of the Chinese authorities and early on April 7, the last day of the competition, the Chinese Government decided to invite the U.S. players to China. By noon that same day, the players had got permission from the U.S. Government.

"It was such a surprise," Connie Sweeris told Beijing Review.Their passports were taken to the U.S. Embassy in Japan to have the China travel ban rescinded. All the female players who were minors had to obtain parental permission, and those who were married had to ask their husbands. Connie Sweeris said she didn't know much about China at that time. She only knew what she had read in history books and that it was a communist country. "It was all like a blanket covering my eyes," she said. 

However, her husband had no fears about her trip. He was also a table tennis player and had played with the Chinese team in the World Table Tennis Championships in Yugoslavia in 1965. He knew what the Chinese were like. "I knew that there would be no problems. They wouldn't mistreat a guest," he told Beijing Review.

It was only when he fully woke up the next day that it dawned on him what a huge deal it was. The U.S. dailies carried reports on the invitation and the upcoming trip and people started asking him when his wife would return home. "Everybody wanted to hear the story," he said.

Only two players declined the invitation. For the rest, the worry, as expressed by some young players, was that they would not have hamburgers to eat in China.

Liang Geliang (center) and other Chinese table tennis players are received by U.S. President Richard Nixon at the White House in Washington, D.C., the U.S., on April 18, 1972 (COURTESY PHOTO)

Icebreaking trips 

The 15-member U.S. squad and accompanying American reporters arrived in Beijing on April 10. They were the first Americans to set foot in the Chinese mainland in nearly a quarter of a century.

It's different. That was Connie Sweeris' first impression. "When we first got in there, all we saw was the average person riding bicycles as a mode of transportation," she told Beijing Review. Chairman Mao Zedong was the country's top leader and head of the Communist Party of China and "his picture and statues were all over China. That was different for me, too," she said.

Her strongest feeling was excitement. Unlike her husband, she had never played with Chinese players. So it was "a great thrill" to watch Chinese players' technique and strategy when they played or trained together.

They also went sightseeing around the country and had banquets with Chinese leaders. Premier Zhou Enlai met the delegation and other foreign guests at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on April 14, 1971. "Your visit to China has opened the door to friendly contacts between the people of the two countries," Zhou said.

Things turned out as he had predicted. Three months later, then U.S. National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger paid a secret visit to China, which paved the way for President Richard Nixon's visit in February 1972. The China-U.S. Joint Communiqué was issued in Shanghai on February 28,

1972, signaling the beginning of the normalization of bilateral relations.

One year later, the Chinese table tennis team paid a reciprocal visit to the U.S. Like some of their U.S. counterparts in 1971, some Chinese players felt the same mixture of excitement and nervousness.

"It was a mysterious country to me. Also, I felt unsafe because I heard that Americans were allowed to carry guns," Li Furong, a top player with the team, said in an interview about the trip. But his fear soon vanished. "What awaited us were smiling faces, not guns."

The arrangement was similar to the American team's China trip. Both teams trained and visited scenic spots together. "The Americans looked at us with curiosity. After all, there was little exchange between the two countries before we arrived," Liang said.

Table tennis is not a major sport in the U.S. but when the Chinese team arrived in Detroit, Michigan, the home state of the Sweerises, and Liang played with Dell Sweeris at Cobo Hall, the best sports venue in the city, on April 14, nearly 10,000 spectators came to watch. The match was also televised.

"The people were there to see the Chinese. They didn't know much about table tennis," Dell Sweeris said. The match was close. "When we had some really good rallies, everybody went 'Ah' because they had never seen anything like that before," he said.

He won finally. "I think it was because Michigan is my home state. Liang was very friendly. It was a great memory for us," Dell Sweeris said.

"Dell could play a nice spin shot. For me, sportsmanship means friendship first, competition second," Liang said.

President Nixon received the visitors in the White House Rose Garden. Liang's suit impressed him. After meeting the Chinese team, he spoke to the U.S. team and made a comment about Liang. "Liang had a casual suit on rather than a uniform, and [the president] noticed that and so [Liang] kind of stood out," Dell Sweeris said.

China and the U.S. established formal diplomatic ties on January 1, 1979. "It's a personal legacy that I can leave behind to be part of a historic trip that helped to open up diplomatic relations between the U.S. and China," Connie Sweeris said.

Dell and Connie Sweeris, former U.S. table tennis players, video chat with their Chinese friend Liang Geliang on February 5 (YALI CARPENTER)

Enduring friendship 

The two visits heralded the ping-pong diplomacy saga and a transpacific friendship that has endured.

Events were held in both countries to celebrate the anniversaries of the ping-pong diplomacy. For Liang, the most memorable one was in 1997. That year, he broke his leg in a car accident in Germany. Two months later, he was still healing when he got an invitation to attend the 25th anniversary of their trip to the U.S.

He immediately said yes and flew to the U.S. though he was still using crutches at that time. "As long as we are alive, we will help promote people-to-people exchanges between our two countries," he said.

The Sweerises made three more trips to China after 1971. "The thing so important about our visits to China was that we were able to meet people there," Dell Sweeris said.

In the last visit in 2011, they went to the Great Hall of the People again and met then Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping. In Beijing they also met Jimmy Carter, during whose presidency the two countries established diplomatic ties.

The couple was stunned by the phenomenal changes in China, especially in infrastructure. "Downtown Beijing looked like New York City. And there were cars all over the place, which was very different from 1971," Connie Sweeris said.

Liang, a six-time world table tennis champion, still plays table tennis and participates in international competitions and sometimes he meets his old U.S. friends. "We are always excited to see each other. We look back on those years and have a common feeling of nostalgia," he said.

But table tennis is no longer their only focus. "We talk about our children and our grandchildren," Dell Sweeris said.

Liang Geliang, a six-time table tennis world champion, trains an amateur player in Beijing on February 3 (ZHANG WEI)

People-to-people ties 

The past five decades have witnessed an increasing flow of students from each other's countries, establishment of sister relationships between Chinese and American provinces (states) and cities, and frequent mutual visits. All 50 U.S. states had sister provinces in China, according to the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

However, the ties were affected by the trade war started by the Donald Trump administration and its campaign to stigmatize China over the novel coronavirus pandemic. The U.S. slapped travel restrictions and a hostile visa policy on Chinese. Personnel exchange dropped to its low ebb in recent years.

"In partnerships or friendships, there are always issues and ups and downs," Connie Sweeris said. She thinks the best way to get around them is to have more people-to-people exchanges in culture, sports, education and other fields.

Gao Anming, Vice President and Editor in Chief of China International Publishing Group, echoed her. "The Chinese and Americans have a long-standing friendship, which should stay impervious to the ups and downs in the political dimension of the relations," he said to Beijing Review.

He suggests the two sides should team up to tackle COVID-19 and climate change fallouts and promote global economic recovery.

Rick Dunham, Co-Director of the Global Business Journalism Program at Beijing-based Tsinghua University, remains optimistic about the future of the bilateral ties. He thinks President Joe Biden is a globalist who knows about China and the history of the relationship. "There may not be agreement but we will have authentic dialogue," he told Beijing Review.

At the latest high-level strategic dialogue between China and the U.S. in Anchorage, Alaska, held on March 18-19, the two sides discussed bilateral cooperation against the backdrop of the pandemic, including adjusting travel restrictions and visa policies for gradual normalization of personnel exchange. 

Both the Sweerises and Liang, who are part of the ping-pong diplomacy, share the same simple wish: That the friendship between the two peoples will continue despite differences between their governments. 

(Print Edition Title: The Ping Is Still Heard) 

Copyedited by Sudeshna Sarkar 

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