Chapter 31 – The Ping-Pong Diplomacy and Australia, 1971
BETWEEN FOUR WORLDS: CHINA, RUSSIA, JAPAN AND AUSTRALIA;
BETWEEN FOUR CAREERS and FOUR LANGUAGES.
The 10 Accidents that changed Australian History
(Accidents marked x)
1. The Ping-Pong Saga Begins
2 x Finding team leader Jackson in a Factory
2. No Ping-pong Invitation for Australia
3. x Jackson discovers Ping-pong Diplomacy
4. No Ping-pong in China
5. x Getting the Invitation to China
6. No Team, And No Money
7. First, find your Ping-pong Team
8. Jackson into Hongkong
9. x Saved by Ogimura
1971. The moderates in China led by Premier Zhou Enlai have been able to stage something of a comeback against the Cultural Revolution fanatics.
Zhou was searching for a way to open ties to the outside world without inviting reprisals from the still active Gang of Four radicals.
Inviting ping-pong players from around the world to visit China was his solution, and it succeeded.
One result was to put an end to the decades of harmful isolation policies imposed on China by the US, Japan, Australia and a host of other Cold War worthies.
Another was that I would suddenly be propelled into China – a China that was still struggling to overcome the harm caused by decades of insane domestic policies.
1. The Ping-Pong Saga Begins
The story begins in Tokyo in the cold, wet spring of 1971.
We have already had wind that something involving China will happen at the world table tennis championships being held in Nagoya in April of that year.
The championships get underway and we soon discover that all the participating teams will be invited to visit China after the championships have ended.
Even the Americans have been invited.
But for some reason there is no word of an Australian team being invited.
I, and presumably the other Australian journalists in Tokyo, set out urgently to contact a Dr (medical) Jackson, the manager for the Australian team to the championships.
x My secretary locates him eventually, and by complete chance.
He is visiting a factory on the outskirts of Nagoya.
Over a shaky phone connection I ask him the all-important question – has the Australian team also been invited to go to China?
After all, if even a US team has been invited, and has accepted, and Washington has given approval, then an Australian team should also be going.
Jackson simply says that for some reason there was no invite for the Australian team.
In any case, he and his team had already planned to do some travel and training in Japan.
China is not on their itinerary.
2. No Ping-pong invitation for Australia
I have to assume he is telling the truth (why would any self-respecting team want to pass up the chance to go to China, the world pingpong capital?)
Maybe Australia has been ignored because its anti-Beijing policies are even more strident and virulent than Washington’s.
Even so, it is a mystery.
The Mystery Continues
But I am reluctant to give up on the story.
After all, it involves China and China is still very much on my mind.
I suggest he call me if and when his travels bring him to Tokyo.
Sure enough, a week later he rings. He is at Tokyo Station and needs to find a place to stay. And it has to be cheap.
I give him the address of a ryokan (Japanese-style inn) and suggest he check it out.
An hour later he is back on the phone.
He is at the ryokan and they are insisting that he has to sleep on straw mats.
x He wants a hotel, not a horse stable.
By this time it is early evening. Finding somewhere else cheap to stay in Tokyo on a rainy night will not be easy.
Reluctantly I say he can stay at my place instead.
A menage a deux gets underway.
He is camped in a Western-style bedroom at one end of my Waseda condo.
I am sleeping on straw mats at the other end.
We meet occasionally over breakfast.
3. Jackson discovers Ping-pong Diplomacy
Sometime, around about day four, I tell Jackson what a pity it was they did not get the invitation to go to China like everyone else at Nagoya.
He asks why the pity.
I pass across that morning’s Japan Times. It has a large front-page photo of the US team in Beijing, shaking hands with premier Zhou Enlai in the Great Hall of the People.
The paper says the whole world is being shaken by the event.
I tell him how if he had got an invitation, he and his team could have been part of the global sensation.
Jackson’s eyes narrow.
To this date he has known nothing about what has been happening to the other teams visiting China.
He has not even heard about the onset of something being called ping-pong diplomacy.
He did not even know there were English language newspapers in Japan which could tell him about such things.
A conversation gets underway.
He (pointing to the photo): “That’s the manager of the US team. I know him well.”
Me: “Well, you could be there with him, on the front page too, if you had been invited to go to China.”
His eyes narrow again.
He:x “But to tell the truth, Greg, I was invited to go to China.”
Me: “What! You were invited to China and you did not go? Why?”
4. No Ping-pong In China
He: “Because the Australian government had insisted that we should reject any Chinese invitation after Nagoya.”
(It turns out that Canberra, like Washington, had had advance notice that the Chinese would be handing out invitations at Nagoya.
(But unlike Washington, Canberra was determined to avoid any contact whatsoever with the evil Chinese communists.
(So it had the team go home or stay in Japan after the championships.
Me: “But you didn’t want to go to China.”
He: “Right. The team broke up after Nagoya.
“Some were invited to go to Tokyo to practice with top Japanese players. The rest went back to Australia.”
Me: “You mean, you turned down this Chinese invitation just because Canberra objected and some in your team wanted to do training in Japan.
He, sheepishly: “Well, yes. When we got the invite to go to China I had no choice but to say no.
“The Canberra people had said no.”
5. Getting the Invitation to China
Me: “Would you like to go to China now that you are not going to Taiwan?”
He: “Well yes. But I have no idea where the other team members are now In any case, surely it is too late now to go to China?”
Me: “No matter. China is very serious about this ping-pong diplomacy. It wants as many teams to visit as possible.
“I will check for you whether the Beijing invitation is still alive. You can decide what to do later.”
He: “Fair enough”
I get from him the name of the Chinese sports organisation that had invited him, and head straight to the local telegraph office.
(I also contact the Australian embassy in Tokyo to find out whether Canberra would move to prevent a China visit. They come back to me studiously neutral.)
I send a telegram to Beijing in his name, saying he now wants to accept the invitation, that he will get his team together, and that he wants one Gregory Clark to cover the visit.
That very evening a message comes back from Beijing inviting him to bring his team as soon as possible, all expenses within China paid, and for one Gregory Clark to go with the team.
For me, who has spent years trying to get to China, the euphoria is boundless.
6. No Team, And No Money
But there are two major problems.
One: Dr Jackson has no team to take to China.
That means I could lose the scoop I am planning to send Sydney about the team going to China (the other Australian journalists in Tokyo have no idea of what is going on).
Two: But even if he had a team they have no money.
The only route into China in those primitive days was across the Lo Wu border post outside Hongkong.
Beijing is only paying expenses from Hongkong and around China.
If the team wants to go to China they will have to pay the Tokyo to Hongkong leg of the trip from their own pockets, which are already bare from the expense of traveling around Japan.
I have to find solutions, quickly.
7. First, find your Ping-pong Team
The next day my secretary makes a frantic telephone search of Tokyo’s dark, dingy ping-pong halls.
She is asking whether there are any Australian team members there.
x We locate three of them.
I ask her to go and tell them to pack their bags for a trip to Hongkong, and China.
Meanwhile in deep secrecy I have told Deamer at The Australian head-office in Sydney what I am doing.
Can the paper come up with the fares to Hongkong? If they do, I can give them a world-shattering scoop.
x Deamer comes back very quickly. Yes.
But my secretary comes back saying no. The team members do not want to go to China (where’s China, one was reported to have asked?).
They much prefer to stay hitting ping-pong balls all day with Japanese players in those dark, sweaty table-tennis halls.
8. Jackson into Hongkong
What to do?
I have already promised Sydney a scoop.
So I tell Jackson to go to Hongkong, talk to the Chinese there, and get permission for himself to go into China as advance guard to arrange a future table tennis tour for Australian players, hopefully brought up from Australia.
That way I will at least get the basis of a mini-scoop reporting the ‘Jackson initiative.’
And Australia will get to share belatedly in the ping-pong diplomacy.
But my mini-scoop, run fairly low key in The Australian the next morning, has alerted the world to the fact that Jackson is in Hongkong.
The ping-pong diplomacy excitement is gathering even greater steam. The world is beating a path to China’s door.
A planned visit by any team, even a hastily assembled Australian team, is big news.
Even the Ecuadorians are in the headlines for sending a team!
And sure enough, in just a few hours the Hongkong press have tracked Dr Jackson down to his Hongkong hotel (the Hongkong media get hold of hotel guest name lists as easily and you and I get names from a telephone directory).
They are beating a path to his door.
Jackson rings me in panic.
Not only has his room been discovered (I can actually hear the journalists banging on his door).
Even worse is the fact that Beijing’s office in Hongkong have told him they are not interested in any advance guard nonsense.
He has to have a team ready to go to China, and immediately.
And, Jackson adds, since his trip to Hongkong was my brilliant idea, I have to get that team together, and get it down to Hongkong, immediately.
9. Saved by Ogimura
At this point I recall that the man who gave the Australian team members the invite to play on in Tokyo after Nagoya is none other than Japan’s table tennis association chief, Ogimura Ichiro.
Ogimura is famous for all he has done in the past to promote sporting ties with China.
I tell myself that if Ogimura knew about my problem, he will agree to tell the Australian players how important it is that they stop their training in Japan, and go to China.
x The scheme works. 24 hours later I have a team.
Or rather, a sort of a team —a lady player and two more (one other has decided he does not want to go to China) plus Jackson and one other team official.
As we clamber aboard the last plane to Hongkong that day, I am handing down to my secretary on the gangplank the last page of my second, and this time hopefully more accurate, scoop.
Four hours later we are landing at Hongkong’s Kai Tak airport.
Officials from Beijing’s Hongkong office are there to meet us.
I spend the evening with a bunch of excited journalists at the Hongkong press club, all trying to grab details of the story I have already sent for tomorrow’s paper.
The next morning Dr Jackson, three bleary eyed Australian table tennis players, and two Australian journalists (myself and one other), are standing at the Lo Wu crossing, waiting to get into China.
(The other journalist is Vince, from the very conservative and anti-communist Melbourne Herald.
(He, rather than a journalist from the less rightwing Fairfax group, has probably been invited because Melbourne hosts the minuscule pro-Beijing faction of the minuscule Australian Communist Party, and Beijing no doubt sees Melbourne as a center of keen pro-Beijing sentiment.)
To be continued.