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


Welcomed, but not Welcomed

1. Welcome Banquet
2. Zhou Enlai
3. Fractious Officials
4. Cold-Shouldered at Chinese Foreign Ministry

Arriving in Beijing, we are given the welcome usually reserved for potentates from African countries seen friendly to China.

1. Welcome Banquet

There is the usual large banquet, with Dr Jackson as the chief guest. The next day we are taken to the Great Hall of the People to meet none other than Premier Zhou Enlai.

I still have a photo of the little-known doctor from South Australia being welcomed by the prime minister of the world’s largest nation.

2. Meeting Zhou Enlai

I also have a photo of myself meeting Zhou.

He is looking straight at me. I am bowing slightly, Japanese style, and whispering a few words in Chinese.

April 1971 – Beijing

I come away from the meeting with two lasting impressions.

One is the cracks in the wall of the hastily built Great Hall.

The other is something others have written about – Zhou’s magnetic presence.

You have the feeling that this is a man of depth and intelligence, who has known power, and suffering, and has somehow come to terms with both.

3. Fractious Officials

Meeting Zhou is one thing. Dealing with his citizens in those frantic Cultural Revolution days is another.

I move quickly from the sublime to the ridiculous.

It begins the next day, when our little band of news-people (by now some Australian TV people have also arrived) head for the main Peking table tennis stadium to see a match with the Chinese national team.

It is an important match, and we assume we do not need tickets to see it – that our journalist credentials are enough.

But a guard says no tickets, no entry. And he is very determined.

Once again it is left to me as the sole Chinese speaker to sort things out.

I ask the guard his name – it is Zhang.

I tell him that we have come all the way from Australia to see this match, and now we will all have to go all the way back, empty handed.

And when we get back we will all write stories about how a Mr Zhang stopped us from reporting on this great and historic match.

Does he realise the terrible damage that will be done to good relations between the great Chinese people and the great Australian people? Does he realise he will be directly responsible for that damage?

Mr Zhang lets us in, reluctantly. But there will soon be repercussions.


The match over (I forget who won, but the Chinese are usually doing all they can to make sure the Australians win sometimes), I am in a taxi with Suich heading for the Chinese Foreign Ministry where we are supposed to make a formal visit to present our credentials.

Suich stops the car to photograph some Chinese slum children (the Fairfax papers love that kind of photo).

In those days photographing slum scenes was tantamount to slandering the great Chinese people. An angry policeman emerges to demand that Suich hand over the camera and that he go to a nearby police station for questioning.

Once again it is left to me to do the explaining.

I rehash much of the same indignation I had given Mr. Zhang earlier.

Eventually we are allowed to go, but again there will be repercussions, and soon.

The Australian table tennis team in Beijing. Raised hand is Dr John Jackson

4. Cold Shouldered at the Chinese Foreign Ministry

Arriving at the Ministry we – the  media people already in Beijing – are ushered into an impressive room and told to wait. The official handling Australian affairs will greet us.

Meanwhile I am imagining how the official will soon enter the room, and will thank me for having brought the team to China.

How wrong can you be.

Eventually a very stern-faced official does enter the room and he does single me out. But it is not to offer me praise or thanks.

He says the Ministry has just received reports from a Mr Zhang and an unnamed policeman claiming that a Chinese-speaking Australian journalist has been behaving in ways insulting to the great Chinese people.

Is that person you, Mr Clark?

I mumble something about being misunderstood, and watch on as the official turns to welcome all the other media people, warmly.

He congratulates them on having opened the door between China and Australia.

I am left standing in a corner.

It was my first lesson in how narrow, ignorant and self-centered Chinese attitudes to the outside world can be.