Ping-Pong Diplomacy

When people in England started playing ping-pong a hundred years ago, it never occurred to them that the game would play such an important role in the Olympic movement and be used someday as a vital tool in diplomacy leading to the re-opening of Sino-U.S. relations in the early 1970s. After the U.S. government was overthrown in 1949, the United States created a policy of blockade towards the fairly new People’s Republic of China. In the late 1960s the Nixon administration wanted to change its global position by improving its relations with China. As Nixon wrote in the 1967 issue of Foreign Affairs, “Taking the long view we simply cannot afford to leave China forever outside the family of nations.” Right after being elected for President, he restated in an interview to Time magazine, “We must not forget China. We must always seek opportunities to talk with her. If there is anything I want to do before I die, it is to go to China.” Premier Zhou Enlai had declared in 1955 at the Bandung Conference, “The Chinese people are friendly towards the American people. The Chinese people want no war with the United States. The Chinese government is willing to sit down for talks on problems concerning the relaxation of tensions in the Far East, particularly in the Taiwan area.” Near the end of 1969 the talks between China and the U.S., which had not got anything done in 14 years, resumed again only to stop again in 1970 after an intervention in Cambodia.

On October 25, Nixon asked President Yahya Khan of Pakistan at the White House to send a message to Chinese leaders that the United States had decided to try to help its relations with China and would send a high-ranking official on a trip to China. On the next day, in his speech at a banquet in honor of the Romanian guest Ceaucescu, he used “People’s Republic of China” for the first time. In November, Yahya Khan sent Nixon’s message to Zhou Enlai on his visit to China. Zhou said that this was something very important and he would report it to Chairman Mao Zedong. A few days later, Zhou told the Pakistan president that Mao had agreed to the American proposal, pending the solution of many details: Who would make the trip to China? When? Whether directly country? On December 18, Chairman Mao Zedong had a five-hour talk with his old American friend Edgar Snow, mostly on the topic of Sino-U.S. relations. He said that if Nixon wanted to come to China, he might “come quietly in a plane, either as a tourist or a president…I don’t think I’ll wrangle with him, though I’ll criticize him.”

Early in 1971, the Chinese ministry was deliberating on questions related to the re-opening of Sino-U.S. relations such as who to invite first, when and through what means. It happened that the 31st World Table Tennis Championships was going to be held in Nagoya from March 28 through April 7,1971. Concerning China’s participation in this tournament, a special meeting was held at the State Council on March 11. Officials attended it from the foreign ministry and the State Commission for Physical Culture and Sports, with Zhou Enlai presiding. Zhou said, “Our table tennis team represents our country and our people, it will come into contact with many teams from other countries including the United States. If the American team is a competitive one, we may invite it to China for competition. Hasn’t our team been to West Germany? Can’t it even go to the United States? We haven’t restored relations with Japan, but our sports delegation can go there.”

While in Nagoya, Song Zhong a Chinese delegate met with Steenhoven, a U.S. delegate, who told him that on the day of its departure the U.S. State Department had decided to lift all restrictions on travels to China for holders of American passports. Song said that this meant they might be able to meet sometime in Beijing. Steenhoven said that American players had much to learn from Chinese players if they had the chance to visit China. The conversation was immediately reported back to China, where a daily bulletin was published about the news from Nagoya, with copies sent to Zhou and Mao and to the foreign ministry. After hearing the news about the conversation, Mao ordered that five calls be made o Nagoya every day instead of three.

On April 1 Henry Kissinger read a statement from the State Department in which Zhou was reported to have told former Japanese foreign minister Fujiyama Aiichiro that there might be a sudden turn for the better sometime in the relations between China and the United States, and that China had taken notice of the American president used the formal name of China for the first time. The statement also mentioned Snow’s conversations with Mao and Zhou. But the State Department concluded that because of the war in Indochina there was no move for immediate improvement in the Sino-U.S. relations. In Beijing, after studying the reports from Nagoya, the Foreign Ministry invited Americans to China. In a report written by the Foreign Ministry and the State Commission for Physical Culture and Sports on April 4, it was suggested that the Chinese table tennis delegation in Nagoya tell the American team that they were not ready for them to visit China. By then the Chinese and American table tennis players had contacted one another on more than one occasion and exchanged souvenirs. The American players had expressed their wish to visit China.

Mao was informed of what had happened in Nagoya so he decided to invite the American players immediately. On April 7, the Chinese delegation received a message from home: “considering that the American team has made the request many times with friendly enthusiasm, it has been approved to invite them, including its leaders, to visit our country.” Upon receiving the invitation, Steenhoven quickly reported to the American ambassador to Japan. After reading the message in Tokyo, Nixon decided at once that the American team should go to China, taking the invitation for the beginning of a long-awaited diplomatic action.

On April 14, Zhou received the guest teams from the United States, Canada, Colombia and Nigeria in Beijing. When talking with the American players, he said, “The Chinese and American people used to have frequent exchanges. Then came a long period of severance. Your visit has opened the door to friendship between the peoples of the two countries.” A few hours after the reception, Nixon announced a relaxation of hate against China. In the latter part of April, China sent a letter to the United States, saying that China would be willing to receive a special envoy of the American President or the American Secretary of State. On May 17, Nixon sent his letter of reply, saying that he was ready to receive an invitation to visit Beijing and proposing that preliminary talks be held in secret between Kissinger and Zhou. From February 21 through 28, 1972, Nixon visited China and met with Mao on the day of his arrival in Beijing. A communiqué signed in shanghai was publicized by the two countries on the 27th.

The “ping pong diplomacy” led to the restoration of Sino-U.S. relations which had been cut for more than two decades. This triggered off a series of other events, including the restoration of China’s legitimate rights in the United Nations by a majority vote in October, and the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and other countries. Of course, Sino-U.S. relations might have been restored sooner or later, even without the “ping pong diplomacy.” Clearly, though, this diplomacy sped up the process. As Zhou said, a ball bounced over the net and the whole world was shocked. The big globe was set in motion by a tiny globe.

It is interesting to note that table tennis has played a similar role in the improvement of relations between the northern and southern parts of Korea. A united team consisting of players from both sides of the 38th parallel participated in the 41st World Table Tennis Championships held in Japan’s Chiba from April 24 to May 6, 1991. The Corbillon Cup was won for the women’s team event brought jubilation to the 70 million Korean people. The victory was a milestone that might lead the split Korea to reconciliation and reunification.