GREGORY CLARK. Pingpong diplomacy and Whitlam’s first visit to China.

April 2017 is the 46 anniversary of the pingpong diplomacy – an event that changed the future of China. It also changed the direction of Australian politics, leading to the ALP Federal election victory in November 1972. But as I explain in the link to this posting, the change in Canberra could well have not occurred but for a chance telephone call from myself to a small manufacturing firm in Nagoya.  

Another point needs to be made: Legend has it that the then ALP leader Gough Whitlam seized the pingpong opening to make his historic 1971 visit to China and so set in train the events that led to that election victory in November 1972. In fact Whitlam initially was reluctant to make that visit; he had long been wary of China and the pro-China group around Jim Cairns. I happen to know personally that the credit should go to then ALP national secretary Mick Young, who went out of his way to persuade Whitlam. Some credit should also go to the then editor of The Australian, Adrian Deamer.

At the time I was in Tokyo as correspondent for The Australian. I became involved with the 1971 pingpong events when it emerged that all the teams to the world table tennis championships in Nagoya had been invited to visit China with only one exception – the team from Australia. At the time we had to assume that the reason was Canberra’s virulently anti-Beijing foreign policy. But by a chain of very haphazard events (which I relate in the link to this posting) I discovered that the team had in fact been invited but on Canberra’s orders the invitation was refused, even though the US team had accepted. It was, as I have argued elsewhere, yet another example of how Canberra’s anti-China phobias in the sixties and seventies pushed Canberra to independent foreign policies – independent, but well to the right of US policies. Indeed, to make sure Australian opinion would not be seduced by pingpong adventures in China, Canberra had even organised for the term to go to Taiwan after Nagoya, together with visas.

As I also explain in the link I then set out to persuade the team to accept the China invitation, to confirm with Beijing that it was still open (and that I was included), and then to help them collect enough of the team’s scattered members to make the trip to China via Hong Kong, then the only point of entry to China. But the team did not have the funds to get to Hong Kong. At this point Adrian Deamer was able to step in and persuade his newspaper (business manager John Menadue) to fund the trip. And so our motley collection were able to set off for Beijing via Guangzhou and Shanghai, despite having those incriminating Taiwan visas in their passports.

As the Australian media rush for visas to cover the visit got under way, even the previously anti-Beijing Department of External Affairs was persuaded it should set up a committee to follow events more closely. The climax came at the end of the visit when I and another media person asked for and got a formal briefing from Chinese officials on relations with Australia. Back in Australia the warning we got – that Beijing was considering moving more of its wheat purchases to Canada unless Canberra made some effort to improve relations – was front page news. The ALP began to realise that it could use the opening to China for political advantage. The move initiated by Mick Young got under way.

The rest is history, related in some detail in– Life Story Chapter 7a.

Gregory Clark joined the Department of External Affairs in 1956 with postings to Hong Kong (he was the first EA person post-war to be trained in Chinese) and Moscow.  After resigning in 1965 he moved to Japan where he has been actively involved as a commentator and educationalist.


John Laurence Menadue is the publisher of Pearls & Irritations. He has had a distinguished career both in the private sector and in the Public Service.

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6 Responses to GREGORY CLARK. Pingpong diplomacy and Whitlam’s first visit to China.

  1. Avatar Dion Manthorpe says:

    Thank you John Menadue & Greg Clark for the entertaining details re the famous ping pong diplomacy of 1971. Now 89, I still have vivid memories of my irrepressible fellow graduate Dr John Jackson regaling us GP’s with his hilarious exploits at a medical conference on his return from China. Greg’s detailed chapter of this event (which I have never previously read) stimulated further happy memories of a colourful character indeed…Dr Chon Chakson as the Chinese called him & who is now deceased.

  2. Avatar Dennis Argall says:

    Ah Greg. Tis the fate of those of us who dwell in the history hinges that we get squeezed.

    As to “… how come they [pingpongistas] … knew something was brewing after Nagoya and EA did not” I was not in Nagoya at the time, nor indeed Freeth et al at the Tokyo embassy, but the pingpong mob were. I think you may be vulnerable to the dangerous notion that governments know a lot.

    I was busy then reading radio transcripts and newspaper translations out of China, a task I suggested to people was like studying the political economy of Nepal by sampling the water of the Ganges at its mouth. In the China and Korea Section by 1971 we certainly had absolutely nothing to do with Recognise-China policy thank you, that was in the hands of a new policy planning section that achieved nil more than hubris. Looking back, unwise to leave people in history hinges with not enough to keep them in place. There was a thing called a Political Intelligence Bulletin which went out weekly and did not require high level clearance. The Leader of the Opposition used to get it. To great consternation Whitlam began attacking the government in speeches, quoting PIB items I had written on simple China truths.

    Oh and to reveal a hidden hinge-role, I confess to drafting Parliamentary Notice Paper questions such as “In the Legislative Yuan of the Republic of China with its seat in Taiwan, how many seats represent territory in [a] the Peoples Republic of China, [b] the Mongolian Peoples Republic… etc etc” to pass via several hands to E.G. Whitlam and to dumbfound me when they hit my desk as difficult Questions on Notice to be answered swiftly. (The answer to that by the way drew upon the twenty-years–in-finding answer to the question of credentials for an ambassador to Ireland – that in recognising a state we were not obliged to have an opinion as to its government’s territorial claims. Which of course did not answer the question at all but was a classy obfuscation, thank you Sir Kenneth Bailey, Advisor on International Law, who in looking at my daft draft answer graciously gave me a lesson for a lifetime on not trying to trick government ministers.

    So plainly you don’t mean to include me in this sentence below. You may need to be more specific. Are you having a crack at Fitz?
    “Meanwhile Australia’s China lobby continues with the fiction that they and Whitlam combined to make the breakthrough.”

    I’d caution, too, that in my experience and that I’m sure of many others big shifts in policy are made from a thousand cuts and shoves and bruises and grumbles more than single mighty things. Andy Warhol famously said “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” Perhaps everyone in a policy circumstance has fifteen moments in a lifetime, or a year, or a Kevin Rudd day, to move the earth a tiny bit, personally famously. Most of us only carry away the bruises and grumbles.

  3. On second thoughts it is possible Dennis Argall could be correct when he says EA was not involved in the attempt to prevent an Australian team from joining the 1971 pingpong diplomacy. I do recall that team leader John Jackson spoke of the Taiwan embassy being active in the affair. Maybe the embassy or someone else contacted Jackson directly with the plan for a visit to Taiwan after Japan.

    But how come they knew they knew something was brewing after Nagoya and EA did not. Jackson kept on talking of ‘Canberra’ as opposing a China visit and it took me some time to overcome his fears.

    In any case, it is arguable that but for that pingpong China visit we would not have seen the change of government in November 1972. To this day I have not seen any interest from either the Australian or Chinese side in checking out the details of how this fairly serious event in Australia’s history occurred.

    Meanwhile Australia’s China lobby continues with the fiction that they and Whitlam combined to make the breakthrough.

    Greg Clark

  4. Avatar Dennis Argall says:

    Greg, when I wrote that comment I had wanted to get down my recall.

    I have now read that wonderful section of your memoirs. Restoring to mind the name of the innocent Dr Jackson, leader of the ping pong group. I hope you retained that technique of issue involvement and recommended many more to that ryokan so they could flee from the tatami and futon to the comforts of your apartment. I smile that you record the alleged comment by a young ping pong player “where’s China.” (The geography is a bit clearer to people here now but ideas not much better. I was expelled from the local branch of the University of the Third Age not long ago at my first attendance at any event for interjecting during a presentation on China’s Future to say that the powerpoint presentation of a runway in the South China Sea plus a putative aircraft carrier plus a putative bomber plus a putative nuclear missile aimed at Australia was like nothing I’d seen since Liberal Party Red Peril election posters in the 1950s. Living in bucolic Ruralia…)

    I can’t explain the matter of the ping pong team’s visas for the ROC. But I offer some context.

    I was in later years more than then very conscious of the effectiveness of ROC diplomacy and influence in Australia. You will recall that we did not open an embassy in Taipei until 1966; no Cabinet submission, a one sentence decision. In the 1980s Taipei had the Far East Trading Company in Melbourne, directing also the Far East Trading Service in Sydney. And there was a KMT office in Sydney. All tolerated, but they ventured into some tricky ruses to try to undermine Australia-China relations. Eventually with ministerial approval I went to Melbourne as division head to call on the (ROC Foreign Ministry) head of the FETC and with all the courtesies lay out to him, point by point, that we knew what he was up to and we wanted him to lay off. An amicable meeting where he concluded by telling me I was a great diplomat and we grinned as I assured him he was a great businessman.

    There was a ‘Taiwan lobby” in the Liberal Party in the federal parliament too, there may still be one. In 1989, when I was appointed head of the research service in the parliament (after a health gap after Beijing) this group asked me to dinner and I think that they learned a bit, different from what they generally heard from Taipei. Two became good friends. When John Hewson became Leader of the Opposition in 1990 he announced that he would visit Taipei. For which I provided via another member, a private briefing to enable the visit while avoiding a mess with Beijing.

    Taiwan issues always took up more time in the China and Korea Section in the 1980s than did China issues. Large and small. Just as the Country Party, under McEwen, had secured the sale of wheat to China in 1960 – against Menzies’ objection and vociferous demands from the US that we not do so, so in 1980 it was Deputy Prime Minister and Trade Minister Doug Anthony who secured cabinet agreement to the opening of the ‘Australian Chamber of Commerce’ office in Taipei. In 1982, when we had our first asylum request from a member of a Chinese official delegation, the impasse was that while we did not accept him for asylum, we could not agree to hand him back to China as Beijing insisted we do. Came an afternoon when [a] the Chinese Chargé d’Affaires visited the gentleman concerned at the Villawood Detention Centre (he was detained being out of his visa situation), then the KMT visited him carrying a plane ticket for Taipei next day, then the head of the Americas and Oceania Division in Beijing, Zhu Qizhen came on heavy with our ambassador demanding return of the individual and that he, Zhu, be kept completely up to date… and then cable contact with Beijing went down. So I secured agreement of three ministers before calling in the Chinese Chargé, Mr Sun at midnight. I apologised to the lovely Mr Sun, recalling his taking me in an embrace several weeks earlier, when he became Chargé, to remind me he was an old scholar who had been in prison from 1958 to 1979 and who just wanted a quiet life. I explained to him that night that the man in Villawood was leaving at 9am and we needed to honour our good friend Zhu’s request to be kept informed and definitely needed to do that before the plane left. Years later as we sat watching an uncharming cultural performance in Beijing, Zhu said quietly to me that he wanted to thank me for my approach to Taiwan issues, never to act for China but alway acting on and making clear Australian interests… and doing it quietly, unlikes the Americans who always made a media event of any issue .

    You mention the press story of no more wheat from Australia from that ping pong visit. Prime Minister McMahon with his remarkable capacity to say too much, announced learnedly that China didn’t mix trade and politics and nor would Australia, we didn’t need to rush to recognise Beijing to save the wheat trade (the recognition pressure rising since Canada shifted recognition to Beijing the previous October). To which a vibrant Chinese reaction necessary, as you record and as trade figures showed for one year. So often so much served by silence. Years later, I seemed often at the same large dinner table in Beijing some places from the chairman of CEROILS, he who decided on wheat imports. Always, when we eventually rose from the table he would seek my hand and say quietly with a smile “we will always buy wheat from Australia” and I would smile and say thank you.

    Long memories. Respect for memories, respect for courtesies, so different from our (and notably US) political habits.

    Westpac in 1984 asked me whether, already having an office in Beijing they could open an office in Taipei, what would the Chinese say? I said it would be no problem, just tell Beijing in advance, without fuss, not as major event. In 1985 they told me that they had done as I suggested when the President of the Bank of China had visited Sydney. They took him aside at a reception. His instant reply: “That’s OK, you’re the bank that doesn’t understand politics.” What does that mean I asked. And the Westpac senior, still amazed by it, explained that the Bank of New South Wales, as Westpac had formerly been, had on one November night in 1949 owed the quite large sum of 40,000 pounds to the Bank of China, a night on which overseas branches of the BOC had suddenly been asked to declare whether they reported to Beijing or Taipei. The Bank of NSW had written to both headquarters to say “We don’t understand politics, we’ll pay you both.”

  5. Re the comment of Dennis Argall, can he explain why the table tennis team initially refused the invitation to Beijing, and, more importantly, they all had fresh, unused Taiwan visas in their passports.

    Canberra’s attempt to derail the pingpong diplomacy was extraordinary.

  6. Avatar Dennis Argall says:

    Well, I was China desk officer at that time and am not aware of any such ‘order from Canberra’. I was then just an Indian, not a chief, but having subsequently been, with intervals, head of the China and Korea Section, head of the North Asia Branch, Acting head of the North and South Asia Division and Ambassador in Beijing. Not at any time did I hear a whiff of such an ‘order’, to the best of my recall. I did meet and accompany the person who led the Australian ping pong team when he later came to visit the Department of Foreign Affairs soon after at his request and I accompanied him to a meeting with a Deputy Secretary, Ralph Harry. There was no mention of any ‘orders’ in discussion. There was a polite exchange between a rather naive ping pong chief and a conservative senior official, in which the ideas advanced by one notably in relation to Indochina, brought from Beijing, and the ideas of the other graciously differed. My Record of Conversation should be in the archives.

    I was myself regarded back then by some senior officers as something of a little pinko, arising from my endeavours to explain some facts. On a cathartic day, 16 July 1971 at 10am Prime Minister McMahon advised a national Liberal Party conference in Devonport Tasmania that Whitlam was “played like a trout” by Zhou Enlai in Peking and close on Sir William’s heels at midday (Devonport time) President Richard Nixon in Washington DC 8pm advised the world in a TV address that Kissinger had been in Peking also. ***

    There followed, from my desk view, the curious sight of senior officers leaping elegantly over my head towards the ‘left’. I recall the astonishment of Michael Cook, new North Asia branch head, when I took him a requested draft submission on some matter, such that he said “this is very strange, this is conservative given your reputation” to which I replied that I had not changed, I just stuck with facts while others moved.

    Orders to the pingpongistas? I have no idea of people they may have talked to, ideas put into naive minds, by people with whatever claim to speak for ‘Canberra’. I do know that at that time Australian businessmen traveling to and from ‘mainland’ China did so as quietly as possible and steered away from government.

    People on Australian ordinary passports could not be ‘ordered’ to stay away from China.

    *** Sir James Plimsoll, Australian ambassador in Washington, was advised by the State Department less than an hour before of what Nixon would say and got the message back before the ABC broadcast of Nixon. There was a rattle of fine suits in the high executive corridors as I slipped off to lunch, a frisson of consternation as on the morning in 1964 when they got the news that Hasluck was to be their minister.
    Sir James had been asked to attend the State Department urgently along with the New Zealand ambassador. Sir James went, the New Zealand ambassador said he was having dinner. Thus New Zealand had no prior notice of Nixon’s announcement of Kissinger’s visit. In 1973 in the Defence Department, I asked one of my staff to seek any records that might illuminate the meaning of ‘consult’ in State Department practice, a word appearing in both the ANZUS Treaty and the agreement relating to the North West Cape communications facility. He found that my question had been put in a hearing of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee regarding the Rota (Spain) communications base a few years earlier. The State Department Counsel replied that ‘consult’ meant to tell the other party what the US was going to do before the US did it.

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