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Last week, on the day after the U.S. announced a willingness to sell arms to China, a squad of Chinese sharpshooters invaded Princeton's Jadwin Gym for the purpose of sharing their explosive technique with their Yankee friends. The occasion was the U.S. Open Table Tennis Championships, and for the first time ever, the entrants—959 of them from 18 nations—included a team of renowned guided-missile experts from the People's Republic of China. A mere coincidence?
Perhaps, but for a nation that has a cabinet-level minister in charge of mixing pong and politics, the timing seemed almost too perfect. Almost too perfect as well would be the Chinese team's visit in Manhattan with former President Richard Nixon this week. It just happened to be set for the 10th anniversary of the advent of Ping-Pong diplomacy.
In fact, the very man who used the sport to help engineer that historic breakthrough in East-West relations, Liu Shiqing of the China Sports Service, also swung the deal that brought the Chinese to Princeton. Though Liu avowed that the Chinese motive for accepting the U.S. Table Tennis Association's invitation was simply to promote goodwill and the game, there were some unexpected and wholly welcome new twists to their visit.
In the past, like a band of hit-and-run marauders, the Chinese were content to pillage the world championships and then disappear behind the Great Wall, emerging only for a few select tournaments. In 1972, as they toured the U.S. with their trusty Double Happiness paddles, they discreetly lost—less tactful observers said dumped—some exhibition games to an American team ranked 28th in the world. Then it was strictly "friendship first, competition second."
Not so last week. That was apparent when the Chinese, who draw their talent from a bottomless reservoir of 12 million registered players—versus 6,000 in the U.S.—eschewed their practice of sending a second-line unit abroad to gain experience. Instead, befitting the significance of their first appearance in a U.S. tournament, they suited up the varsity—three men, two women—each one a reigning world champion.
Friendship wasn't forgotten, though. Indeed, the Chinese came bearing bountiful gifts, such as an offer to set up summer training camps in the People's Republic for promising young American players. And how about an exchange program in which visiting Chinese players and coaches would share their expertise with the U.S. squad in return for a tour of the People's Republic by, say, one of those classy American basketball teams?
Was there some mysterious ulterior design to this sudden Chinese open-door policy? Longtime China pong watchers like Tim Boggan, editor of Table Tennis Topics, couldn't help but caution that "you can never be sure about the Chinese. Just as I'm certain they sometimes dump matches when it suits their ends, I think their coming here goes beyond goodwill. They never do anything without some grand purpose in mind."
Liu, speaking through an interpreter, allowed as much when he alluded to the "great Chinese dilemma." In short, they may be too good for their own good.
That notion evolved in the 1970s while the Chinese were pursuing a one-for-all game plan in the biennial world championships. Stressing collective achievement over individual honors, they won the 1971 team title but lost the men's singles. In 1973, when fluke upsets denied them both the men's and women's team crowns, they turned around and swept the individuals. Eventually, after the Chinese once again won the team championships but lost the individuals in the next two world tournaments, players from other countries began to complain about tainted "gift games."
"There was no way you could beat them," says Danny Seemiller, the top U.S. player. "If you won, people would say, 'Oh yeah, friendship first, right?' When you lost, they'd say, 'Of course, you were supposed to.' "