From Ping-Pong to Ice Hockey: Where Have All the Media Gone

Relations between the world’s top two leading economies, deemed as the most important, have many facets. And sports, once a key player in moving forward China-U.S. relations, are not one of them.

The U.S. National Hockey League (NHL) is on its 2023-2024 regular season.

Lasting throughout to April 18, 2024, it features all 32 league teams battling it out in more than 1,300 matches to win the Stanley Cup trophy.

Believe it or not, the American sports have a loyal fan base in China. The NHL official account on social media platform Weibo, the Chinese version of X, formerly known as Twitter, has nearly 2.9 million followers. That figure is quite impressive given the facts that ice hockey remains a niche sport in China even after the successful 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics. And in a country of 1.4 billion people, the number of registered adult ice hockey players nationwide was put only at a little bit over 10,000 in 2022.

Relations between the world’s top two leading economies, deemed as the most important, have many facets. And sports, once a key player in moving forward China-U.S. relations, are not one of them.

Against this background, it’s hard to imagine that over half a century ago, in the Cold War period, one sports event, the table tennis (Ping Pong), had once enabled the thawing of China-U.S. relations. The term of the Ping-Pong diplomacy was thus coined to highlight its significance.

But a stroll back into history grants me a fresh thought. It was not the sports itself which played the role. It was the media!

It all started in the spring of 1971. The World Table Tennis Championships took place in the Japanese city of Nagoya. On April 5, American player Glenn Cowan stepped onto a wrong shuttle bus full of Chinese players. After a more than 10-minute tense silence, Chinese star player Zhuang Zedong stood up from the back of the bus and walked toward the front where Cowan was sitting. Zhuang shook Cowan’s hand and gave him a gift, a silkscreen picture of China’s Huangshan Mountains. Within 24 hours, Cowan returned the kindness by giving Zhuang a T-Shirt with a peace symbol and the Beatles’ lyric “Let it be”.

The two Ping-Pong players’ interaction in Nagoya heralded an eight-day visit to China by 15-member American Ping-Pong delegation, including players, the team officials and their spouses, from April 10 to 17. That was followed by U.S. President Richard Nixon’s eight-day trip to the Middle Kingdom in 1972 which Nixon himself would describe as “the week that changed the world”.    

Take a deep look at that period of history and just imagine if no media picked up these historic chain of events, what would have happened to the China-U.S. relations and to the world? For example, in the 1970s, photographs were instrumental in covering news events as they explicitly exemplify the news-telling motto: seeing is believing. When Glenn Cowan and Zhuang Zedong stepped down the fated shuttle bus on April 5, 1971, they were caught by a group of photographers. The pictures of these two beaming athletes spread on the front pages of every major Japanese newspaper the following morning and were picked up by major U.S. media outlets including the Associated Press.

When Cowan gave Zhuang a return gift, the two had a big hug. The photographers were even more enthusiastic and caught the friendship gesture with their cameras, turning the moment into a symbolic storyline of two adversary countries thirsting for peace-making.

There were also plenty of well-circulated photographs covering the American delegation’s China trip, showing the guests visiting the Great Wall in China, interacting with Chinese, eating Chinese food, engaging in Ping-Pong friendship matches, all smiling, relaxed and entertained.

These pictures presented a different China to Americans, the other side of the “red devil” or “Communists” China image that most Americans were told or imagined. And for the first time in the history of the People’s Republic, Americans came into the streets or cities of China who would talk or smile as ordinary Chinese.

All that was possible because media, Chinese, American or International, were there. And the rest is in history textbook. The Ping-Pong diplomacy had a well-quoted or perhaps more fitting metaphor summarized by Chinese leader Mao Zedong: “The little ball (Ping-Pong) moves the Big Ball (the globe).” On January 1, 1979, China and the U.S. officially established diplomatic relations.

Half a century later, China-U.S. relations are living through trying times again. The San Francisco summit between the two presidents on November 15 has stabilized, at least for the time being, the once spiraling downward bilateral ties. But it’s widely believed that for the benefits of both countries and the rest of the world, more needs to be done.

If history offers any wisdom, Sports exchanges again could be a starting point for introducing the two countries to their opposite audience. And here comes the ice hockey.

On NHL Weibo official account, under one post about a Chinese TV live match broadcast notice on December 6, one Chinese Weibo user commented: Is it possible to broadcast live every match (of NHL here in China)?

The message could be intended for the country’s national broadcaster China Media Group (CMG). Few Americans know that through a cooperation deal CMG broadcasts live NHL matches on its CCTV sports channels on a regular basis.

And ahead of the November San Francisco Summit, CMG and NHL upgraded their cooperation, including expanding broadcast platforms in China and hosting ice hockey events for Chinese fans. Both CMG and NHL have vowed to make ice hockey a new bond in China-U.S. sports and people-to-people exchanges.

Ping-Pong diplomacy was nurtured when Internet was nowhere to find and social media platforms were non-existing even in people’s wildest dreams. You may conclude that the ice hockey exchanges would become less challenging. The opposite might prove truer.

Technology application makes news and information more accessible, but it could not guarantee their accuracy and unbiased coverage. If history rings a bell, when ice hockey engagement between China and the U.S. takes place, more than ever media outlets, be them Chinese, American or international, are needed to be present and pick up the moment.

It is true that news means exposing the ugly, unveiling the difficult, and at times recording the tragic. After all, one of the main missions of the press is hold people accountable.

Yet news is more than just that: it is also the media’s duty to report on the progress of human society. After all, news is recording, with the greatest loyalty, of facts.

As Ping-Pong diplomacy in the Cold War indicated half a century ago, media could play a key role in turning around the dire trend through focusing on small but positive engagements. That is especially true today when the world is on a crisis mode.

Liu Kun
Liu Kun
CGTN Radio Host and former Washington Bureau Chief of China Radio International