How to Get to China

from an'OLD HAND'


Gregory Clark, who went to China in 1971 with the Australian ping-pong team, finally gives the answer to a much-asked question:

So you want to visit China. Well, here's how: First find a ping-pong team; and not any old ping-pong team. It has to be a team that the Chinese have invited to China but which for some reason doesn't particularly want to go. Your job is to persuade it to go. That way you, too, might be included on the invitation list.

How do you find a team which has been asked to go to China but refuses and can be persuaded out of its refusal? Easy. You know that an Australian ping-pong team has been in Nagoya for the 1971 world championships. You also know that the team does not plan to go to China; it says it was not invited. But on the off-chance you try to contact the team anyway. By some coincidence you locate the middle-aged captain of the team in a Nagoya ball-bearing factory just as he is leaving the city after the championships.

At this stage you don't know and no one else knows that he has in fact been invited to China, because if anyone knew, you and every other Australian journalist would be down in Nagoya chasing the story. After all, all the other teams at Nagoya were invited, and the world media are running hot as a result. The captain is claiming there was no invitation since, unlike the Americans, his team had planned a tour of Taiwan after the championships and in any case they want to spend more time in Japan. But you suggest casually that he look you up if he ever comes to Tokyo.

OK so far? Well, a week later he does come to Tokyo but by this time most of his team has disbanded and returned home. He is touring Japan with the buxom 17 year old Number One lady player, has run out of money, and wants you to put him up. Three other players and a coach are somewhere in Tokyo on a special one month training program arranged by a famous Japanese trainer.

You hedge a bit at this one. The ping-pong invite story is dead, and you don't have all that much room in your apartment anyway. But he persists, and since you did make a promise, you give in. From a happy bachelor pad your household becomes an uneasy menage a trois, where breakfast table conversation ranges from past ping-pong victories to cheap transistor deals at Akihabara.

Around the third day, when the U.S. team is making its triumphal entry to Peking and you have run out of conversation topics, you suggest casually to the captain that it was a pity his team was not invited to visit China too. He then reveals equally casually that the team was in fact invited and the Chinese were so keen to have them that they left the invite open in case they didn't make the Taiwan tour.

From this point on the conversation takes a delicate turn. A script might be useful. You: "But you didn't go to Taiwan. What's stopping you from going to China?" He:"Well, no one particularly wanted to go to China and we can do it anytime later anyway." You: "But don't you realise the significance of going there now? Haven't you heard of ping-pong diplomacy? Haven't you read what has been happening to your American mates in China?"He: "No. What's happening in China? You: "Don't you read the papers?" He: "I didn't know there were any English-language newspapers in Japan."

At this point you grab the nearest Japan Times with a pic of the Americans shaking hands with Chou En-lai and reporting how the world press is gathering in Hongkong with cheque-books in hand to buy the story when the team emerges from China. His eyes narrow. After a brief conversation you are leading him to the nearest cable office so he can checkout with the Chinese Sports Federation whether the invite is in fact still open. The Chinese reply in less than 24 hours that the team's arrival is awaited impatiently.

Then the captain suddenly gets political pangs. Isn't China communist and all that? He says he's got to check with the Embassy. He's told you earlier that Australia's rigidly conservative government had secretly encouraged the Taiwan tour (in order to prevent hint of flirting with Peking),so you fear the worst. Fortunately the Embassy stays fairly neutral about it all, apart from a slight fuss about whether passports are endorsed forbidding visits to China.

But if he is to take a team to China, how does he get a team together? The first step, obviously, is to locate the players training in Tokyo. After a day of phone calls you find them in a dark, sweaty ping-pong hall on the outskirts of Tokyo.

But the players don't want to go to China. You and the captain tell them how important it all is and how famous they will be, but they still don't want to go. All they want to do is to continue the training which has been arranged specially for them by that famous Japanese trainer. You beg, threaten and cajole . . . it makes no difference.

Despair. If something isn't done now the moment will have been missed. Relations with China will remain frozen. More important, you will have missed your story. So you settle for persuading the captain to go to China alone under the guise of arranging the future visit by a ping-pong team (and, hopefully, yourself). Another cable is sent to Peking telling them this; they reply ambiguously asking for passport numbers and advising earliest travel to Hongkong to collect visas.

Now the pace begins to accelerate. You see the captain off on the plane to Hongkong and head back to town to write your exclusive story, confidently predicting his crossing the Chinese frontier the next day. Then you ease the pressures of the past few days over a glass of beer (don't forget you have been left with the Number One lady player ensconced in your flat) and return home late that night to find the phone ringing frantically. It's the captain in Hongkong and he's telling you urgently the Chinese had expected him to arrive with his team, and they won't give him a visa by himself, and you've just got to persuade the team to get down to Hongkong as quick as they can. For a start you can try to persuade the Number One lady player.

Or at least so you think. You send her off the next morning to where the team is practicing with strict instructions on what she must say, etc. You give her an hour or two to persuade the others. Then you ring through to the ping-pong stadium. It's even worse than you could have imagined. She hasn't persuaded them; they have persuaded her. She wants to stay with them in Japan for the training with the famous Japanese trainer.

By now the situation is desperate. Your story the day before has been run in Australia, and the Press have tracked the captain down to his room in the Golden Gate, Hongkong. He is ringing you frantically on the hour for progress reports. You can actually hear the Press people outside beating on his door. Then, of course, there is that cable from Peking sent you the day before saying you can have a visa to accompany an Australian ping-pong team to China. It finally reaches you after being delivered to the wrong address. For you, the reasoning is simple: No ping-pong team, no trip to China.

Then suddenly it hits you in a flash. Of course... why hadn't you thought of it before? That famous Japanese trainer was featured in the Japanese press as a great friend of Peking. Once he knows the situation he will immediately allow the team to break training and encourage them all to go to China. He may even promise to let them continue the training after the China tour. You arrange for all to be together at the same place to receive a Hongkong call from the captain. It works.

True, one of the players has a passport problem and can't go. But two male players and one female player may just suffice as a team. The non-playing coach and captain will flesh out the numbers a bit too.

But your problems aren't over yet.The team can come back to Japan after China to continue training, but who will pay their fares? (The Chinese will pay all expenses in China.) You contact your newspaper. After much consultation they agree reluctantly to put up a guarantee (in exchange for the exclusive story; no one else in the Australian media knows what you are up to) and the way is at last clear. Your race the team back to their lodgings, get their luggage, and make it out to the airport just in time to catch the last plane to Hongkong for the day. All the luggage you have is the clothes you wear and a typewriter. Somewhere in between you sit down and write your exclusive story for tomorrow's paper, with a hostess delivering the last take from the plane just before the doors close for takeoff.

Airborne at last. By the time you get to Hongkong the Press have got wind of what's happening and are waiting at the airport. Also waiting are the smiling representatives of the China Travel Service to take your passports so they can arrange the visas in time for you to get the 8 a.m.Kowloon-Canton train the next morning.

Then the greatest disaster of them all hits you, or almost. Buried deep in your passport is an old Taiwan visa. As a rule the Chinese don't accept passports with Taiwan visas. What to do? Cut it out quickly? Spill ink all over it? It's too late. A smiling representative is already in front of you asking for the passport.

But this time the usual rules don't apply. For one thing the team also have Taiwan visas, admittedly unused, but still just as offensive to Peking. And the Chinese are determined to go through with the ping-pong diplomacy. The next day you get your visa, catch the train and finally get to the forbidden frontier.

But your problems still aren't over. For some unknown reason you are forced to wait for more than an hour on the Hongkong side of the border. It is a long, long hour. Eventually you are summoned to the middle of the wooden bridge leading into China. A border guard takes your passport, opens it at the offending Taiwan visa, gives you a little lecture, in Chinese, and then waves you on .across ... over. . . the ... bridge.

China at last. But it's not really all that difficult. Like I said, first find your pingpong team ....

Oh, and one other tip. Don't waste the previous ten years learning the language, doing the sympathetic China-watching bit and applying vainly for visas. Just find that little old ping-pong team and all will be solved.

I also have a few tips on what not to do when you get to China.

But I'll have to leave that till later.