How ping pong brought Australia and China together: a story from 1971

Jan 28, 2021

As the 50th anniversary of Australia’s 1971 opening to China approaches it is time to tell the true story of how a team of confused ping pong players and journalists hunting for a scoop opened Australia/China relations.


But for the unwillingness of a middle-aged Australian doctor to sleep on Tokyo tatami mats on a cold night in April 1971 it is quite possible there would have been no opening to China in 1971 or many years after.

It is even possible there would have been no ALP election victory in 1972.

The story begins with me working as a correspondent for The Australian in Tokyo in the cold, wet spring of 1971. Following the world table tennis championships in Nagoya in April of that year we discovered that all the participating teams had been invited to visit China after the championships.

Even the Americans had been invited. But there was no word of an Australian team being invited. I managed to contact Dr (medical) John Jackson, the manager of the Australian team to the championships, who was visiting a Nagoya factory. He could not explain why there was not invite.

In any case, he and his team had planned to do some travel and training in Japan and to visit Taiwan after that. I suggested he call me if and when his travels brought him to Tokyo.

A week later he rings. He is at Tokyo Station and needs a place to stay. I give him the address of a ryokan (Japanese-style inn) but an hour later he calls saying he has to sleep on straw mats. He wants a hotel, not a stable. It is late at night and I invite him to stay at my place. Four days later over the breakfast table I discover, thanks to his seeing a photo of the US team in Beijing in the morning paper, that he had been invited to China but Canberra had insisted they visit Taiwan instead.

(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 with Beijing and had arranged through the Taiwan Embassy for the team to go to Taiwan immediately after the championships.)

A conversation ensues:

Me: “But you didn’t go to Taiwan.”

He: “Right. The team broke up after Nagoya. Some were invited to go to Tokyo to practise with top Japanese players. The rest went back to Australia.”

Me: “You mean, you turned down this Chinese invitation just because you were supposed to go to Taiwan, and you have not gone to Taiwan any way?”

He: “Well, yes. When we got the invite to go to China I had no choice but to say no. The Canberra people had arranged everything for us, including visas, to go to Taiwan”

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.”

I decide to intervene. 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 evening a message comes back from Beijing inviting him to bring his team as soon as possible, all expenses paid, and for one Gregory Clark to go with the team.

But there are two major problems.

One: Dr Jackson has no team to take to China.

Two: Even if he had a team they have no money to get to China.

Beijing is only paying expenses from Hong Kong and around China. If the team wants to go to China they will have to pay the Tokyo to Hong Kong leg from their own pockets. All they have are pre-paid return tickets to Australia via Taiwan.

I contact Adrian Deamer at The Australian head office in Sydney and he agrees the paper will pay fares in exchange for the scoop.  But I still have to locate the three players training in Tokyo. I find them eventually, only to discover they have no interest in going to China.

The man who had invited the Australian members to train in Tokyo after Nagoya was Japan’s table tennis association chief, Ogimura Ichiro, famous for all he had done to promote sporting ties with China. I ask him to help out, and he does.  Two days later Dr Jackson, three bleary-eyed Australian table tennis players, myself and one other correspondent are standing at Hong Kong’s Lo Wu crossing, waiting to get into China.

(The other correspondent is Vince Matthews from the Melbourne Herald.  He, rather than a journalist from the 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 centre of keen pro-Beijing sentiment.)

But our problems are still not over. Entry to China is refused because of Taiwan visas in our passports. Eventually, and only after many calls to and from the Beijing office back in Hongkong, we are allowed in.  First stop is Guangzhou where we discover that Beijing has not yet organized press accreditation for myself and Mathews. Cables will cost us one dollar a word. Regardless, Mathew sends out a 3,000-word article, tells the cable office he will pay later, and heads for the bedroom I have to share with him.

At midnight a group of angry young radicals pour into our room demanding that the non-Chinese speaking Mathews pays his $US3,000 bill immediately. I tell them it is not his fault he cannot pay his bills, that Chairman Mao has instructed the young radicals to serve the people, and they clearly are not doing anything to serve us.

The radicals leave and the next morning Mr Yu tells me he and other officials have been up all night dealing with them. They have been demanding our immediate expulsion from China for unacceptable behaviour – the defamation of Chairman Mao especially.

We can only be allowed to stay if I apologise. I apologise. Finally, I get into the county whose language and politics I have been studying for almost 10 years and which has been excluding all but true believers.

Arriving in Beijing, we are given the welcome usually reserved for African leaders seen friendly to China. At a large official banquet, Dr Jackson is the chief guest. The next day we are taken to the Great Hall of the People to meet Premier Zhou Enlai.

I come away from the meeting with two impressions. One is the cracks in the wall of the hastily built Great Hall. The other is something others have written about – Zhou’s extraordinarily magnetic presence.

April 1971 – Beijing

Melbourne Herald correspondent, Vince Matthews, is between me and Zhou.

Within less than a week Beijing was to be flooded with Australian journalists chasing the ping-pong story.

But few seemed to have realised its true significance – that Zhou, who may already have been suffering cancer, had decided to risk everything to defeat another and much more dangerous cancer – the radical Cultural Revolution extremists still seeking to force China into dangerous isolation.

Inviting the ping-pong players was his attempt to break that isolation, and it worked, eventually.

But not without further efforts in Australia to continue the isolation.

Returning to Tokyo I got a call from an old acquaintance, Mick Young, then ALP secretary-general. There was a move, he said, to persuade Gough Whitlam to follow up on the ping pong publicity and visit China. It was something of a gamble, he said, and much depended on whether he could expect a good reception. The conservative media in Australia were still anti-China. And Whitlam was still with the ALP right over China. But the news of a possible wheat import ban had changed things, he said.

(One of my last moves in Beijing had been to ask for an official briefing on the state of China-Australia relations. A Fairfax representative and I were told that China was not pleased with Canberra’s attitudes and if the hostility continued Beijing would move to Canada as a reliable wheat supplier. Overnight our media had moved from ping pong to politics. Maybe that would help a Whitlam visit, Young had suggested.)

I could only say yes.

In July Whitlam visited China and talked to Zhou. But Canberra and the conservative media were still unimpressed. Whitlam, Billy McMahon intoned, had been played like a trout by Zhou. But on the day of Whitlam’s arrival in Tokyo for return to Australia the news broke that US State Secretary Kissinger had also, secretly, visited Zhou.

When I met him in his hotel room that morning and told him the news, he erupted:  ‘Just wait till I get back to Canberra. I will show Billy who was the trout.’

The rest is history, with Whitlam sailing to his strong 1972 election victory, partly due to McMahon’s mishandling of the China question. But in the final analysis it all came back to the unwillingness of a provincial middle-aged Australian to sleep on tatami mats on a cold, wet Tokyo evening in April 1971.

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