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The power of sports diplomacy

Wallace D. Loh, president of the University of Maryland, College Park, says the school’s biggest selling point may be its sports teams.

The president of the University of Maryland’s flagship campus hasn’t even left on his trade mission to China, but he’s already planning the school’s next big outreach campaign to the world’s second-largest economy.

It comes five to a side, and wears red and white, with some black and gold thrown in.

Wallace D. Loh, the president of the University of Maryland, College Park, said the school wanted to send the men’s and women’s basketball teams to China this summer but plans fell through.

“We are already working to send them next summer,” said Loh, a Shanghai native who took the top UMCP job in November.

The school already has extensive ties to China. Business students go up against their Chinese counterparts in business plan competitions, and criminology professors travel to the Asian nation to teach intensive classes. Provincial government officials come to College Park to earn master’s degrees in public policy.

But Loh said he worries about this country’s ability to retain the students that its world-leading higher education system grooms for high-tech jobs.

“In the old days, and by that I mean 10 years ago, we would have been able to attract the best and brightest in China, and 90 percent of them would have stayed in the United States,” Loh said. “Nowadays, 60 or 70 percent go back to China.”

They return to a country with growing wealth and a hunger for scientists and engineers.

“Some of the absolute finest labs, in the biosciences, are in China,” Loh said. “You saw what they did with the Olympics. They poured billions of dollars and built all these stadiums in what, less than a year? They’re pouring that kind of money into universities and labs.”

UMCP has partnered with the state to run an incubator for Chinese companies, and Loh said he will meet with the presidents of five or six Chinese universities to discuss faculty and student exchanges.

But Maryland’s biggest selling point may be its sports teams.

Loh said he recently took a young, successful entrepreneur from China on a tour of campus and the incubator where his company could open a Maryland office one day.

“What caught his attention, and what he wanted to have his picture taken with, was the national championship trophy that Gary Williams won,” the president said.

In addition to basketball, Loh said the university is working on sending its soccer and volleyball teams abroad as well.

He compared the effort to ping-pong diplomacy of the 1970s that helped thaw the frosty relations between the United States and China. The first match was played at Cole Field House on the College Park campus.

“This is sports diplomacy,” Loh said. “They will learn to fear the turtle.”