REMATCH: Former Chinese world champion Qi Baoxiang plays with Judy Hoarfrost, a member of the U.S. table tennis delegation that visited China in 1971, in a friendship ping-pong match in Beijing on January 7 to mark the 30th anniversary of China-U.S. diplomatic relations (RAO AIMIN)
Jan Carol Berris has witnessed a series of events that made history for China-U.S. relations, including ping-pong diplomacy, the exchange of ping-pong players in the 1970s that eased the way for higher-level contact. She has overseen hundreds of American delegations to China and met many from China. She has traveled to China about 100 times with groups and individuals as diverse as a tennis team and a Supreme Court Justice. She is popular among different groups of people in China, who better recognize her Chinese name, Bai Lijuan.
As both countries celebrate the 30th anniversary of normalization of China-U.S. diplomatic relations, Berris, Vice President of the National Committee on United States-China Relations, talks to Beijing Review reporter Chen Wen about her special experience of that particular period of history.
Beijing Review: When the first Chinese delegation, mostly consisting of ping-pong players, visited the United States in 1972, what were the reactions of the Americans?
Jan Berris: Americans were all very warm and very friendly. If you asked the Chinese delegation members what impressed them most about their visit to the United States, they all said it was the warmth and friendship that Americans showed them while they were here. I too was enormously impressed with how warm and friendly the Americans were upon meeting the Chinese.
Our two countries had not had relations for a very long time. There had been a lot of propaganda in China about the evil of the United States and in the United States about the evil of the Chinese. So I did not actually think that the reception would be as warm, as open and as welcoming as it was. It was the same for the American players. When they went to China, people were also very warm and very welcoming. So I think on both sides there was the desire to get to know each other better, and that was certainly expressed in the friendly attitude and friendly reception that the Chinese players received.
That's not to say that there weren't problems. There were. Some organized protests and some were of variety of interest groups in the United States.
Comparing your first trip to China and your most recent one, what are the most significant changes?
I've been to China about 100 times. My first trip to the Chinese mainland was in June 1973 and the most recent one was last summer.
Everything about China has changed enormously. There are many good things about the changes that have been made over the past three decades. The opening to the outside world has obviously made the lives of the majority of the Chinese people better. They are more open and freer to do what they want to do. There are a lot of economic opportunities, travel opportunities and education opportunities that didn't exist before.
So there are many changes that have been beneficial. But there are other changes that have not been beneficial. For example, there is enormous income disparity between people.
Based on your experience, do you think there are still some misunderstandings between people in the United States and China?
Unfortunately, there are still misunderstandings on both sides. A lot of American people, whether government officials or ordinary people, need to understand China better, and the Chinese Government and Chinese people need to understand America better. It's a never-ending process. It takes a long time and has to go step by step. Sometimes it is very rewarding and sometimes it is very frustrating.
Misunderstandings are in various areas: trade, politics, culture, philosophy, etc. We come from very different backgrounds. We have very different attitudes toward various things. I think in the long run, living in another country for an extended period of time is probably the best way to lessen misunderstandings.
But on the other hand, the Americans and the Chinese have many similarities. I find that the two peoples have a sort of natural affinity toward one another. We tend to like one another and are able to easily establish a good relationship and long-term friendship. And that's very encouraging.
How do you think both sides can understand each other better?
Increase and stay in contact, that's the only way it can happen.
You witnessed ping-pong diplomacy and Dr. Henry Kissinger's secret Beijing trip, among other events that made history for Sino-U.S. relations. Do you think those epochal events were based on the wisdom and vision of the two countries' leaders, or was it just the right time for a breakthrough?
I think it was a combination of both. The leaders of the two countries wanted to establish a relationship for a variety of geopolitical reasons, and I think fortunately the time was right. We had wise and very forward-thinking leaders in both countries who were able to work well together and make progress. So I think it was very good timing and thoughtful leadership.
What changes do you expect U.S. President-elect Barack Obama will bring to relations between China and the United States?
President-elect Obama has a huge number of problems in terms of the economic situation in the United States. I think that at the moment the U.S.-China relationship is actually on quite good, stable ground. I don't think China will be one of the first issues for the president to address because he has so many other pressing and dangerous situations. As I said, the economy is an issue and the crisis in the Middle East could be very dangerous. There are many other areas that are going to demand his attention immediately. Fortunately, China is not among them.