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

Apr 27, 2017

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.


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