Zhuang Zedong, Chinese 'ping-pong diplomacy' player, dies

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Zhuang Zedong and Glenn Cowan in 1972Image source, AP
Image caption,
Zhuang Zedong was reunited with Glenn Cowan on a visit to the US in 1972

Chinese table-tennis player Zhuang Zedong, who had an instrumental role in the so-called ping-pong diplomacy that led to a thaw in US-China relations in the 1970s, has died aged 73.

Zhuang's gift of a silk portrait to US player Glenn Cowan in Japan in 1971 triggered events that led to a US team touring China in April that year.

In 1972, Richard Nixon became the first US president to visit communist China.

The visit opened China to the outside world and shifted the Cold War balance.

Nixon called his visit to China "the week that changed the world".

The US and China normalised ties in 1979.

'Friends of the Chinese'

The incident that triggered the invitation to the US table tennis team to visit China took place at the world championships in Nagoya, Japan, when Cowan missed his team's bus and was given a ride on the Chinese bus.

Image source, AP
Image caption,
Nixon called his visit to China "the week that changed the world"

In an interview with Reuters in 2007, Zhuang said his team mates had urged him not to approach the American, but he ignored them.

Through an interpreter he told Cowan: "Although the US government is unfriendly to China, the American people are friends of the Chinese. I give you this to mark the friendship from Chinese people to the American people."

Pictures of the encounter were splashed in the media and Chinese leader 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.

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

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
Zhuang Zedong said his team mates had urged him not to speak to Glenn Cowan

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 and the speedy ousting of the so-called "Gang of Four", which included Mao's widow Jiang Qing, Zhuang was detained and not allowed to play table-tennis.

He only returned to Beijing from internal exile in 1985.

He married Chinese-born Japanese woman, Sasaki Atsuko, in 1987.

Cowan died in 2004.