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University to send students to China in ping-pong diplomacy J-Term program

The course, “Game Change: Bridging the U.S.-China Divide Through Sport,” will send twelve students to Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Beijing

The program will begin on Jan. 1, starting in Hong Kong before traveling to Beijing and Shanghai.
The program will begin on Jan. 1, starting in Hong Kong before traveling to Beijing and Shanghai.

The University will send 12 University students to Hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing this January for a table tennis and diplomacy course during the January Term period. The class, titled “Game Change: Bridging the U.S.-China Divide Through Sport,” will focus on historical tensions between the two countries, the current challenges facing relations today and will provide students with the opportunity to engage with Chinese students through table tennis competitions. 

Students participating in the course will meet and play table tennis with Chinese students from Tsinghua University in Beijing,  Shanghai University of Sport and Fudan University in Shanghai. They will also have the opportunity to visit famous sights in China, including the Great Wall and the Forbidden City. Stephen Mull, one of the program’s instructors and vice provost for global affairs, said students’ travel and accommodation expenses are entirely subsidized by donors.

“I started looking around for financial support and found a number of donors who were also excited about this,” Mull said. “Because of the donors, we basically were able to pull together this course and this trip at no expense to the students.”

Mull will teach the course alongside Justin O’Jack, chief representative of the University’s China office. After the pandemic, the University’s exchange programs with China stalled and have since struggled to restart due to increased tension between the countries. 

The two countries have clashed on issues from trade interests to Taiwan’s sovereignty to territorial disputes over the South China Sea. This year, Mull said he hoped to find a way to bring the programs back and promote better understanding between Americans and the Chinese. 

“I thought, we’re in this difficult time now, maybe we should take a look at what works to try and get some kind of dialogue going,” Mull said. “Our Chinese counterparts were thrilled with the idea. They were very excited and honored to invite us.” 

Inspired by the ping-pong diplomacy between the U.S. and China in the 1970s, Mull and O’Jack developed the idea for a J-Term course that would educate University students on the challenges hindering constructive diplomacy and find connection between the communities through the sport of table tennis.

During J-Term, the University runs a variety of ten-day courses that offer students opportunities in current interest topics, study-abroad options, and undergraduate research seminars. The 2024 J-Term will run from Jan. 2 to 12. 

“Ping-pong diplomacy” refers to the friendly competitions between U.S. and Chinese ping-pong teams beginning in 1971, which strengthened relations and ultimately culminated in President Richard Nixon’s famous first visit to China in 1972. 

While tensions between the countries were at a high, after a highly publicized moment of connection between the Chinese team and an American player at the World Table Tennis Championship in 1971, China extended an invitation to the U.S. team to play an exhibition match in China. The team became the first delegation of Americans to visit the country since before the Chinese Revolution in 1949. 

Mull said he hoped this course would act as a similar bridge for American and Chinese students alike to better understand each other’s perspectives. China is the most common country of origin for both graduate and undergraduate international students at the University, and Mull said that improving understanding between the two nations would benefit students and, in turn, benefit the University as a whole. 

“I'm hoping that by the time the students finish this course and we come back here in the middle of January, they’ll have a much deeper understanding about what the divide is between the United States and China,” Mull said. “They'll have a deeper understanding of what American motives and Chinese motives are in this really important relationship, and they'll have a deeper knowledge of the Chinese people.” 

Jie Lu, captain of the University’s club table tennis team and fourth-year Commerce student, will be attending the J-term program. She said that as a Chinese American student, she was excited for other students to have the opportunity to learn about Chinese culture. 

“It's really cool that we're also going to be talking to other college students and learning their culture, because … some people in our group have never been to China,” Lu said. “So it's just cool that they'll be spreading our American culture to them and vice versa.”

Of the 12 students attending, six are members of the University’s table tennis club, while the other half have at least some experience with the sport. Mull said that sports are uniquely positioned to allow for this sort of diplomacy in difficult times due to their ability to transcend barriers like language, nationality, and culture. 

“Every country in the world places a huge importance on sports, and it's a great way to engage with people,” Mull said. “It's an international language that every culture can understand, that every culture enjoys, that brings people together in a very personal setting with other players.” 

Lu said she also hoped the program would spark broader change among other universities. She added that the University’s course is the only one of its kind, as no other major university currently offers a ping-pong study abroad program in China. 

“Other schools will see that U.Va. is taking this initiative, this first step, to build a better relationship with China,” Lu said. “And I do think that other schools will hopefully follow and extend that relationship.”

The program will begin on Jan. 1, starting in Hong Kong before traveling to Beijing and then Shanghai. 


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