Ping Pong Diplomacy

You have opened a new chapter in the relations of the American and Chinese people… I am confident that this beginning of our friendship will certainly meet with majority support of our two peoples.- Zhou En Lai

Sports has not only the potential to build bonds between two men, but also two nations as will be seen in this article. Read on to find out!

The story

The then unlikely story all began when the US ping-pong team was in Nagoya, Japan, for the 31st World Table Tennis Championships. Following a team practice 19-year-old Californian student, Glenn Cowan, missed the team bus. Zhuang Zedong, member of the Chinese national team and three times world champion, on seeing Cowan’s plight and in a friendly gesture completely contrasting to the tense political relationship between their nations, offered the American a seat on the Chinese team bus. Although communicating in any way to a foreigner was deemed a crime in China, the two unlikely new friends chatted through an interpreter, and found a rapport. Zedong gave the American a silk gown by as a present, and invited the American team to play a friendly tournament in China. The significance of this invitation can only be understood when one takes into consideration the Sino-American relationship at that time – no American had stepped on Chinese soil since Chairman Mao (pictured) had come to power 22 years earlier in 1949. By the time they had got off the bus the Chinese team and their American passenger were surrounded by press and Mao Zedong quickly got wind of the incident. Miraculously within hours, Zedong’s informal invitation was endorsed by Mao and been made official. The result of this was that, on 10 April 1971 nine US players, four officials, two spouses and five US journalists crossed a bridge from Hong Kong onto Chinese soil. Under the slogan ‘Friendship First Competition Second’, the Chinese men’s team won 5-3, and the women’s team 5-4; such were actually handicapped matches as the Chinese pained to refrain from inflicting a white-wash on the Americans. The agenda of the tournament was made transparently non-competitive a step further when in between matches, the US team were treated to a sightseeing tour which took them to the Great Wall, the Summer Palace and frequent banquets. Interestingly though they were not spared the ubiquitous bombardments of images of Mao, and loudspeakers condemning American imperialism. At one such banquet, at the Great Hall of the People on 14 April, Chinese premier, Zhou En Lai famously said to the visiting Americans, “You have opened a new chapter in the relations of the American and Chinese people… I am confident that this beginning of our friendship will certainly meet with majority support of our two peoples.”

Its effect on the state level

From this ‘ping-pong diplomacy’ flowed great advances in inter-state relations: China was admitted into the UN; America, on the day Chou En-lai made his speech, ended a 21-year trade embargo on China, and, two months later in July 1971, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s secret visit to China paved the way for President Nixon‘s official visit in February 1972. A watershed moment for both sports and international politics this was!

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