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Ping Pong Diplomacy

When people in England played a small plastic ball on a table with round wooden bats a hundred years ago, perhaps it had never occurred to anyone---and indeed nor to anyone even three decades ago--- that the game would play such a vital role in the Olympic Movement and be used someday as a powerful weapon in diplomacy leading to the re-opening of Sino-U.S. relations in the early '70s, contemporary history of the world.

After the U.S.-backed Kuomintang government was overthrown in 1949, the United States adopted a policy of blockade towards the newly-born People's Republic of China. In the late '60s, in face of increasing Soviet menaces, the Nixon Administration wanted to change its global strategy by improving its relations with China. As Nixon had written in the October 1967 issue of Foreign Affairs, "Taking the long view we simply cannot afford to leave China forever outside the family of nations." Immediately after his nomination for President, he reiterated in an interview to Time magazine that "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."

On the other hand, as Premier Zhou Enlai had declared as early as 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."

Towards the end of 1969, the talks in Warsaw between China and the United States at the ministerial level which had gone on for 14 years without achieving any result were resumed, only to stop again after two intervention in Cambodia in April 1970.
On October 25, Nixon asked President Yahya Khan of Pakistan at the White House to send an oral message to Chinese leaders that the United States had decided to normalize its relations with China and would dispatch a high-ranking official on a secret trip to China. On the next day, in his speech at a banquet in honour of the Romanian guest Ceaucescu, he used for the first time the name of "People's Republic of China." In November, Yahya Khan forwarded Nixon's oral message to Premier 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 on principle, pending the solution of many details: Who would make the trip to China? When? Whether directly country? And so on and so forth.

On December 18, Chairman Mao Zedong had a five-hour talk with his old American friend Edgar Snow, mainly 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 foreign ministry was deliberating on questions related to the re-opening of Sino-U.S. relations, such as whom to invite first and when and through what channels.

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. It was attended by officials from the Foreign Ministry and the State Commission for Physical Culture and Sports, with Premier Zhou Enlai presiding.

"Our table tennis team represents our country and our people, " Zhou said, "It will come into contact with many teams from other countries including the United States. If the Amecican team is a progressive 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 of the Chinese delegation met with Steenhoven, manager of the U.S. delegation, who told him that on the eve 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 someday 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. Upon hearing the news about the conversation, Mao ordered that five telephone calls instead of three be made to Nagoya every day.

On April 1, across the Pacific, Henry Kissinger read a memorandum 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 using the formal name of china for the first time. The memorandum also mentioned Snow's conversations with Mao and Zhou. But the State Department concluded that because of the war in Indochina there was no prospect for immediate improvement in the Sino-U.S. relations.

In Beijing, after a careful study of the reports from Nagoya, the Foreign Ministry held that in inviting Americans to China, first consideration should be given to influential journalists and politicians. In a report written jointly 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 the time was not yet ripe for it to visit China. The report was sent to Zhou and Mao.

By then the Chinese and American table tennis players had come into contact on more than one occasion and exchanged souvenirs, which had made a sensation in the world press. The American players had expressed their wish to visit China.

Mao was well informed of what had happened in Nagoya. He decided to invite the American players immediately. On April 7, the Chinese delegation received a directive from home: "considering that the American team has made the request many times with friendly enthusiasm, it has been approved to invite it, including its leaders, to visit our country."

Upon receiving the invitation, Steenhoven immediately reported to the American ambassador to Japan. After reading the cable from Tokyo, Nixon decided at once that the American team should go to China, taking the invitation for the beginning of a long-awaited major diplomatic action.

On April 14, Zhou received the guest teams from the United States, Canada, Colombia and Nigeria at the Great Hall of the People 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 embargo against China. In the latter part of April, China sent a letter, again care of Pakistan, to the United States, saying that china would be willing to receive a special envoy of the American President (e.g Kissinger) or the American Secretary of State, or the President himself. On May 17, Nixon sent through Pakistan 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 or another appropriate Chinese high-level official. In July Kissinger and Zhou had talks in Beijing from the 9th to the 11th and the two countries publicized a communique simultaneously on the 15th.

From February 21 through 28, 1972, Nixon visited China and met with Mao on the day of his arrival in Beijing. A communique 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 an overwhelming 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 Enlai said, a ball bounced over the net and the whole world was shocked. The big globe was set in motion by a tiny globe--- something inexplicable in physical but not impossible in politics.

And 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 they 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.

(COC Website   July 8, 2004)

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