It was 1949 and Mao Zedong assumed the reins of the newly formed People’s Republic of China. Relations with the United States were surrounded by Cold War propaganda, a trade embargo, and diplomatic silence. The joint meetings were held on the battlefield during the Korean War. The official US delegation has not entered the People’s Republic of China, which is not recognized by the United States, for more than 20 years. The ice was broken only after a chance encounter between two ping-pong players and exchanging a silk-shirt picture with a text by the Beatles.
Against the backdrop of the raging Cold War, the Maoist Republic maintained relations with its rival, the Soviet Union. The United States sided with Chiang Kai-shek, who fled present-day Taiwan after losing the civil war. The final straw for the relationship between the two communist countries, however, was the invasion of Czechoslovakia by Soviet forces in 1968, when the great commander Mao began to fear the potential dangers from the Soviets.
A year later, Richard Nixon, a staunch opponent of the Chinese regime, assumed the presidency of the United States. To fulfill his electoral promises to withdraw troops from Vietnam, he knew friendship with China would be inevitable. Until then, the unimaginable idea of an alliance between natural enemies seemed to be a logical and viable path.
“In 1971, Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger opened relations with the People’s Republic of China within the framework of the tripartite logic of the Cold War. At that time, China was a poor country with a highly repressive regime at the height of the Cultural Revolution, but for the United States it was a strategic ally against the Soviet Union.” As Martin Hall, Synopsis Project Manager, Seiznum Zebravi explains.
The table tennis team unexpectedly became the first American delegation to officially enter Mao Zedong’s China since the founding of the People’s Republic of China.
The historical scale of the event is illustrated, for example, by incorporating the film into the Forrest Gump movie. Tom Hanks became a member of the table tennis delegation in the lead role. “I thought they would send me back to Vietnam, but they decided to contribute to defeating the communists by playing table tennis. Someone said world peace is in our hands,” says fictional character Forrest Gump in the movie.
Let it be
The invitation of the American players to China was preceded somewhat by coincidence. During the World Table Tennis Championships in Nagoya, Japan, one of the American players, nineteen-year-old Glenn Kwan, boarded a bus carrying the Chinese national team after training. Chinese players treated him a great deal, after all, in China at the time, slogans announcing the downfall of American imperialism and the United States as enemies were not common. On the bus, however, a friendship arose.
The team’s most intelligent player, Zhuang Zedong, approached Cowan, shook hands and spoke to him through an interpreter. Finally, he was presented with a gift – a picture of China’s Huangshan Mountains on a silk plate. Kwan, who described himself as a hippie at the time, returned to Chuang’s favor the next day and gave him a peace symbol with the Beatles “Let It Be.” A pleasant incident was captured by the paparazzi and soon the good intentions between the two rivals became the theme of the entire tournament.
Although a strict ban was imposed on Chinese players to communicate with the American team in the 1971 tournament, Mao Zedong used the new friendship as a political opportunity. “Chuang Zedong is not only a good table tennis player, but also a good diplomat,” he noted. In China. So before the American players after consulting with their embassy. President Nixon later wrote in his diary: “I was as surprised as I was pleased.” “I did not expect the Chinese initiative to take place through the pingpong team.”
The first contacts between China and the United States, rather than diplomatic circles, took place mainly in gyms.
The American table tennis team was not particularly successful. The men’s team was 24th in the world at that time. Most players had to seek sponsors or borrow money to travel to attend the tournament. The Chinese allegedly intentionally lost several games in the name of friendship.
The 50th anniversary of the unexpected trip, recorded in history as ping-pong diplomacy, comes on April 10. According to analysts, this table tennis tournament was the first break in the relationship between China and the United States. In 1971, the wind seemed to be blowing in the right direction.
After a few days, the athletes inadvertently became the most important American diplomats in the world. Western journalists followed at every turn, and athletes began to work as reporters for newspapers and magazines.
History is always in memory
Today marks the 50th anniversary of the famous “ping-pong diplomacy” engagement between China and the United States.
American table tennis team visits the Great Wall of China, Beijing, 1971 © Norman Webster.
Perhaps more exchange is what he’s currently craving !!! 🏓️🏓️ pic.twitter.com/uQSnvvkUIk
Tongbingxue 仝 冰 Yuki (tongbingxue) April 10, 2021
Then the team spent 10 days traveling in Guangzhou, Beijing and Shanghai, visiting monuments and learning about Chinese customs. American players were treated like high profile personalities, and they received great attention and good food. But the whole event was constantly accompanied by the specter of the Cold War.
During one of the stops, Team Leader Graham Steinhoven noticed that Mao Zedong used the term “Imperial Running Dog” on a wall decorated with the phrase “Down with the Yankee Ripper and their running dogs.” The sign “Welcome to the American Team” was displayed to mark the allies of the imperialist forces counter-revolution.
Members of the US team left China on April 17 as media stars. Before his return, President Nixon announced that the United States would relax the travel ban and trade embargo on China. Soon, the American and Chinese governments began communicating with each other. In July, US National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger made a secret trip to Beijing.
“The ball that moved the world”
Countries continued to benefit from table tennis diplomacy the following year. In response to the US visit, the Chinese sent a table tennis team to the US eight months later on a tour. Richard Nixon’s visit to the People’s Republic in February 1972 caused a sensation, as it was the first official trip of its kind in American history. During an eight-day trip that Nixon described as “a week that changed the world,” he met with then Prime Minister Chou Enlai and Chairman Mao to take the first steps to normalize US-China relations.
The vote at the United Nations in 1971, when it allowed the People’s Republic of China to join the organization, thus contributed to the development in this direction, thus replacing Taiwan.
When Nixon recalled the visit a few months later, he noted that Chinese leaders “were very happy to remind them that the exchange of table tennis teams had led to a breakthrough in our relations.” They seemed to enjoy the means of achieving the result almost as much as the result itself. Even then Prime Minister Chou Enlai did not forgive himself the metaphor: “Our great leader Mao moved the ping pong ball and moved the world. “
Back to the start
Fifty years later, there seems to be no memory of the friendship. Martin Halla told Seznam Zprávy: “The United States has gone through three major stages in its relations with China over the past half-century, only to get back to the beginning now – only in a much worse position.”
After the end of the Cold War in 1989, respectively. In 1991, after a brief shock from the bloody suppression of the Tiananmen Square demonstrations, the United States since the late 1990s has preferred a policy of “engagement,” that is to say, developing economic and political cooperation in part with China. The assumption is that China’s economic development, and its close contacts with the West, will gradually lead to the country’s liberation and constructive participation in the international relations system, says Hall, adding that China has fully benefited from the politics of engagement. What they had imagined in the United States.
“By applying cheap labor and transferring technology on a large scale, it has achieved rapid economic growth as well as power growth, without abandoning the Leninist one-party government. With the emergence of Xi Jinping in 2012-2013, it became clear that the assumptions of engagement were strange, In 2017 the United States entered the third phase, the strategic confrontation, thus relations basically return to before 1971. Just as the People’s Republic of China reverts to Orthodox Maoism in many ways, only at a qualitatively higher level after taking full advantage of the past two decades of free access. To the American market and American technologies. “
50 years ago, pingpong diplomacy created a unique way of interacting between China and the United States, although we may have much greater differences back then than they do now.
I believe that today we are in a better position to put aside differences and achieve win-win cooperation.https://t.co/7jTYvmSfOO
– Cui Tiankai (AmbCuiTiankai) April 10, 2021
This year, Chinese Ambassador to the United States, Choi Tianzhihui, celebrated its fiftieth anniversary with a call to revive the friendly spirit. Recalling a quote on a small ball that moved the planet, Choi said, “Both sides should inherit and develop the spirit of pingpong diplomacy from mutual respect and seek common ground to calm differences.”
However, he did not forget to criticize the American side, which he believes is “obsessed with ideological bias” that hinders cultural exchange between the two countries.
Thus, relations between the United States and China have reached a freezing point again. Somehow, Joe Biden has taken control of the tough anti-China rhetoric promoted by Donald Trump. The Biden government has long described the relationship as “competitive,” and both countries continue to dispute Taiwan, Xinjiang, Hong Kong and technological development.
“Social media maven. Award-winning coffee geek. General explorer. Problem solver.”