'Friendship first, competition second' was a popular slogan in China in Maoist times, when sport was a tool of foreign policy. The mesmerising performances of the Chinese ping pong team in the 1970s did much to gloss over the nation's serious internal problems and to present it to the outside world as a prosperous socialist nation.
The climax of ping pong diplomacy saw the American team visiting Beijing in 1971. The tour did much to prepare the Chinese and American public for a thawing of Sino-American relations that culminated in the historic summit between US president Richard Nixon and China's great helmsman Mao Zedong the following year.
Over the past 20 years, Chinese athletes have excelled in many more sports. Individually or as a team, many have become world or Olympic champions, notably in such sports as badminton, gymnastics, women's long-distance running, shooting, swimming and diving.
As China's standing in the international community grows in line with its economic development, the diplomatic significance of Chinese athletic prowess has declined. But the performances of Chinese sportsmen still matter a great deal as a measure of the country's increasing strength. Had it not been for their achievements, China could not have won the bid to host the Olympics in Beijing in 2008.
Although China already shines in many sports, the significance of the national soccer team's advance to the World Cup finals next year cannot be underestimated. As the world's most popular spectator sport, soccer holds a unique position in China's national psyche, as it does in many other countries.
China made its first real steps in the game 44 years ago, but has never made it through the World Cup preliminaries until now. For a country that now has 1.4 billion people, China's failure to produce a national team good enough to rank among the world's best has been considered a disgrace.
When Hong Kong beat China 2-1 in the preliminaries in Beijing in May 1985, riots broke out in the capital, with angry crowds stopping and attacking foreigners. That the fans vented their xenophobic feelings towards a Hong Kong team made up of entirely ethnic Chinese players showed how strong the pent-up emotions were. Perhaps, the fact that the best players from a tiny part of China under British colonial rule could beat the cream of the crop from the whole country was just too hard to swallow for ordinary Chinese.
Ironically, that match marked a turning point for both Chinese and Hong Kong soccer. For China, the defeat prompted the deepest soul-searching. Chinese players were sent overseas for training. The introduction of foreign players and coaches after the setting up of professional leagues in the mid-1990s helped to raise standards further.
By contrast, Hong Kong was so carried away by its victory over China that the top local teams thought they no longer needed foreign players, who had been brought in since the 1970s. Sadly, that was to precipitate the long-term decline of Hong Kong soccer to its appalling state today, when star players have become a dying breed and a typical first division match draws only a few hundred fans.
Although Chinese soccer has come a long way since 1985, the chances of the national team getting very far in next year's finals are not considered high. While some top Chinese players have been head-hunted to play in the professional leagues in Europe, the Chinese team still trails behind the top teams from Europe and South America.
Yet, merely qualifying for the World Cup is an historic breakthrough and a matter of great national honour for China. Bora Milutinovic will forever be remembered by the Chinese people as the man who sent China to the World Cup. Until now, SAR soccer fans' interest in the national team has been lukewarm. But even though most local Chinese still have problems accepting their identity as Chinese nationals, latent patriotic feelings are likely to spur them to cheer for China next year.
Indeed, 2001 is likely to go down in Chinese history as a landmark year - when it won the right to host the Olympic Games, joined the World Trade Organisation and qualified for the World Cup.
For much of the past two centuries, China was subjected to foreign invasion and ridicule. This triple achievement will do much to restore the wounded pride of the Chinese people and rally them behind the cause of opening up and integrating with the outside world.