11 Feb 2013

Death of ping-pong diplomat

7:47 am on 11 February 2013

Chinese table-tennis champion Zhuang Zedong, a key figure in ping-pong diplomacy between the United States and China in the 1970s, has died.

It was Zhuang's gift of a silk portrait to American table-tennis player Glenn Cowan at a tournament in Japan in 1971 that led to the US team being invited to tour China during the Cold War.

Mao Zedong quickly ordered his foreign ministry to extend the invitation.

"Zhuang Zedong not only knows good ping-pong, he knows good diplomacy too," Mao reportedly said.

In 1972, Richard Nixon became the first US president to visit communist China. Nixon said the visit was "the week that changed the world".

The United States and China normalised ties in 1979.

Zhuang, 73, was a three-time world champion and a huge sporting figure in China in the 1960s.

He became sports minister in his 30s and was appointed a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party.

However, following Mao's death in 1976, Zhuang was detained and not allowed to play table-tennis.

He did not return to Beijing from internal exile in 1985.

Cowan died in 2004.