Chapter 31a – Taking a Ping-pong Team Into China


Finally Into China, with Difficulty

1. Left Waiting at Lo Wu
2. Taiwan Visas;  Entry to China Refused
3. Into Canton (Guangzhou)
4. Attacked by Radical Students
5. Expulsion from Canton?
6. Meeting Shirley Maclaine
7. Into Shanghai, Bad News Waiting! 

Finally I have got the ping-pong team to the Chinese border at Lo Wu near Hong Kong. But my problems are still not over.

1. Left Waiting at Lo Wu

We have handed over our passports. But for some reason we are all left standing in the hot sun at the frontier post for some hours. Why?

Eventually a stern-faced guard emerges to tell us that we cannot go to China.

2. Taiwan Stamp; Entry to China Refused

One of the team has a used Taiwan stamp in his passport.  People who have been to enemy territory of Taiwan cannot be allowed into China.

(The others all have unused visas, courtesy of Canberra and the Taiwan Embassy – both of which were planning visits to Taiwan after Nagoya – to keep them safely from Beijing’s clutches.)

The guilty one, it seems, is team leader, Dr Jackson. His response is brutal and rapid. He just tears out and discards the offending page in his passport. 

I invent some excuse for the offending passport, and emphasise the importance of our mission.

Eventually after calls to and from the Beijing office back in Hongkong, we are allowed in. 

3. Into Canton (Guangzhou)

At Canton we are met by a small delegation of boiler-plate communist officials.

Fortunately, it includes a Mr Yu (the ‘Yu’ means ‘fish’) – a youngish, sophisticated official sent down from Peking especially by the Chinese Foreign Ministry to look after us.

We are taken to the famous Dongfang Hotel – the main hotel in Canton for welcoming foreign guests.

The hotel lodges most of the thousands of foreigners who pour into the town each year for the Canton Fair, China’s one point of commercial contact with the outside world.

Being put in such a prestigious hotel means the Chinese realise the political importance of our visit, I tell myself.

But the self-satisfaction will not last long.

At the hotel post office we find that Beijing has not yet organised press accreditation for myself and Vince.

So if I want to cable the story my newspaper wants so badly — “First Australian Journalist into China since 1949” – it will cost one US dollar a word, and I will have to pay before midnight.

It is too late to go to the bank. So I can do no more than file a brief story saying that we are all in China, that we are part of the historic ping-pong diplomacy, and that the first breach in the wall of traditional Australian hostility to China has been made.

But Vince is much more aggressive.

His first story out of China is a 3,000 word article on the welcome we have been receiving, saying that the girls look nice beneath their Mao costumes, that the food is splendid, and that the beer tastes good.

Unfortunately, he does not have the 3,000 dollars needed to send this opus back to Melbourne.

He tells the cable office he will pay later, and heads for the bedroom I have to share with him.

We are both exhausted. I have hardly slept for the past three days.

4. Attacked by Radical Students

As we lie prostrate in the sticky south China heat, I hear a frantic knocking on the door.

It is exactly midnight.

A group of angry young men (descendants of the Red Guards perhaps) pours in through the unlocked door. Vince still has not paid his bill, and they want to know why.

Needless to say, the youths are speaking in Chinese, and very rapid Chinese at that. It all passes over Vince’s head.

The youths get even angrier, and try to pull him out of bed. I have to intervene.

I say that it is not Vince’s fault he cannot pay his bills since Beijing has still not arranged the Press cards that guarantee our newspapers will pay bills. Besides, Chairman Mao has instructed the young radicals to serve the people, and they clearly are not doing anything to serve Vince.

The radicals are not impressed, especially by my attempt to drag Chairman Mao into the argument.

But they realise there is nothing they can do about the semi-comatose, Vince. They leave, swearing vengeance.

5. Expulsion from Canton?

The next morning at breakfast I can sense that the meet-and-greet friendliness of the night before has evaporated.

Indeed, the officials of the night before are now viewing me with intense loathing and silence.

With them is Mr Fish, and he is looking very worried.Yu takes me aside.

In a low and serious voice he says that he and the officials have been up all night dealing with those young radicals.

They have been demanding my immediate expulsion from China for unacceptable behavior – the defamation of Chairman Mao especially (no mention of the true culprit, Vince).

Only after six hours of intense all-night debate was Yu, the diplomat as ever, able finally to persuade the radicals to allow me to stay.

But only if I make an apology.

I try to take stock for a moment.

I have spent much of my adult life learning Chinese, writing a book explaining Chinese foreign policies, thinking about China, defending China from insults.

What’s more I have defied my own government and single-handedly organised the ping-pong team China wants so badly to visit.

And then when I finally get to China, I discover there are some people there who want me expelled on my first evening.

Just brilliant.

But I stomach my pride and do what Mr Yu says.

I am allowed to stay in China.

After an exhibition table tennis match in Canton we set out for Shanghai.

Australian Pingpong Team at the Tournament

6. Meeting Shirley Maclaine

On the plane is a delegation of American women led by Shirley MacLaine. They have come to learn about the liberation of Chinese women.

The first Chinese woman they meet is a timid stewardess on the plane. They beg her to tell them about her liberation.

She does not have much to say. In fact, she does not want to say anything.

She is clearly terrified by these large, dominating, liberated American females

7. Into Shanghai. Bad News Waiting

Shanghai is not much better than Canton – disheveled crowds, slogans everywhere, somber hotels.

One evening I am watching yet another boring ping-pong marathon when Mr Yu comes up and says he has some good news for me.

A fellow Australian journalist will be joining us from Tokyo.

It is a Mr Ssu, a Mr Ssu… He repeats the name often, trying to get the right pronunciation. His Shanghai accent does not help.

But he needs say no more. I have already guessed. Mr Ssu can be none other than Max Suich.

Suich is the Fairfax representative in Tokyo, and he has been badly scooped. Not only did I nobble the Australian team from under his nose in Tokyo, but I also managed to get it out of Tokyo and into Hongkong without him or any other Australian journalist realising that something was afoot.

It was a classic, old-fashioned scoop, executed in a manner that the old-timers especially would appreciate.

But Suich’s Sydney bosses are not impressed. He has to do something to match me, or else.

They need not have worried. The highly-competitive Suich is already on the move.

From the moment my story has hit the news stands, he has been on the phone to Beijing daily, demanding a visa for the Fairfax group of papers.

After a week of constant calls, Beijing relents. And when he does get the visa, he not only flies direct to Beijing a day or two before we arrive. He even tries to scoop me.

He sends off a story telling the world that he is the first legitimate Australian journalist to arrive in the Chinese capital since the 1949 revolution.

(Wilfred Burchett, of course, has been there before him, but Burchett is not ‘legitimate.’)