If Scott Morrison is serious about improving Australia’s relationship with China, he could do worse than picking up a table tennis paddle and swapping rhetoric for rallies.
With Sino-Australian co-operation crumbling, the prime minister might take his lead from a trailblazing table-tennis team that toured China 50 years ago this week and helped spark unprecedented dialogue with the Asian powerhouse.
When Australia’s ping-pong diplomats met with Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai on May 1, 1971, it was the culmination of a trip that made them household names at home and abroad.
The three teenage stars – Steve Knapp, Ann McMahon (later Middleton) and Paul Pinkewich – plus coach Noel Shorter and manager Dr John Jackson were an unlikely band of ambassadors.
But where they led, Australia’s prime minister-in-waiting Gough Whitlam soon followed as China began to open up to the outside world.
Like many good stories, the Australian team’s historic visit very nearly didn’t happen.
The players were in Nagoya, Japan, in April 1971 for the world championships when the tournament unexpectedly hit headlines around the globe.
China and the USA had been locked in a mutually suspicious dance for more than 20 years, rejecting diplomatic and economic relations.
In a move that became known as ping-pong diplomacy, Chinese authorities invited the US players, along with those from several other countries, to tour the Communist nation on a ‘friendship visit’.
“After the worlds, the American team – others as well but it was mainly about the Americans – were invited to go to China. But we were not included,” Knapp, who was 17 at the time and is one of three surviving members of that trip along with Pinkewich and Shorter, tells AAP.
Then prime minister William McMahon was no fan of the Chinese regime of Chairman Mao Zedong and suggestions abound that any invitation was simply not passed on to the players.
“The government didn’t want us to be involved,” Pinkewich recalls.
With the help of Japan-based journalist Gregory Clark a telegram accepting the mysteriously missing invitation was swiftly despatched to the Chinese authorities.
“The reply came back – be ready to leave in 48 hours,” Knapp says.
“Dr Jackson rounded up the small numbers that were still in Japan – Paul, Noel Shorter, myself and Ann – and we got on the plane to Hong Kong.
“We were just ping-pong players, we didn’t care too much (about the politics).”
For 17-year-old Knapp, the politics may not have been an issue but there was one small stumbling block.
“I got to Hong Kong and I had to ring my dad in Victoria reverse-charge and ask if it was alright for me to go to China,” he laughed.
Politics raised its head once more at the border between then-British-run Hong Kong and the People’s Republic.
“The guard stopped Dr Jackson because he had a Taiwanese visa attached to his passport,” Pinkewich recalls.
“Dr Jackson was quite a flamboyant character and he ripped the page out of his passport and said ‘there’s nothing here now, is that OK?’.
“We went on and had a fabulous 13-day trip.”
For table-tennis aficianados, China is something of a spiritual home; the equivalent to soccer players being invited to train and play with Brazil’s national squad.
“They were very polite to us, they were very kind and they made us look good,” Knapp says of the exhibition tour that drew crowds of thousands – and sometimes more.
“At the Capital Stadium in Beijing there were 18,000 there and we were paying against the national team.
“I asked my interpreter ‘how many people will be watching this?’ because there were TV cameras there.
“He may have been exaggerating but he said ‘one billion people’.”
One of the most famous images of the trip came when Knapp shook the hand of China’s premier, Zhou Enlai.
“He was a diminutive man with a massive presence,” Knapp says.
“He had some questions: he wanted to know why I had my hair long and was it a protest, and what did young people think of the Vietnam War.”
On their return to Australia, Pinkewich and Shorter attended a party at the house of the Maltese Ambassador in Sydney, taking with them home movies of the trip.
“When we got there, we were introduced to Gough and Margaret Whitlam. After a while they took us into a small room, set up a camera and asked to see the film,” Shorter recently recalled to Table Tennis Australia’s official website.
“I was really surprised at the detailed questions that Whitlam was asking us.”
Soon after, Whitlam, then Australian Opposition leader, visited China. Eighteen months later he became prime minister, with his trip considered a key turning point in relations between the two countries.
With those relations currently on shaky ground, how would ping-pong diplomacy stand up in 2021?
“I said to Table Tennis Australia, approaching the 50th anniversary, ‘why don’t we go there now and play a ping-pong match and see if we can repair the relationship?'” Pinkewich says.
“I don’t know if the Australian government would approve of that.”