April 10, 2023

The Beginning of Ping Pong Diplomacy

The Beginning of Ping Pong Diplomacy

April 10th, 1971. To thaw relations between the countries, the US table tennis team arrives in the People's Republic of China, marking the start of what will become known as “Ping Pong Diplomacy.”


Transcript

Cold Open


It’s the morning of April 10th, 1971, on a railway bridge between Hong Kong and China.

The sun is shining brightly, like an omen of good things to come. But as a group of 15 Americans walk timidly across the covered bridge, there’s an undeniable sense of tension in the air. They’re about to do something that hasn’t been done in years  – they’re the first group of US citizens to visit China since 1949. Not only that, they’re set to tour the country at the express invitation of the nation’s communist government.

Among them is 23-year-old US table tennis champion Connie Sweeris. She clutches her camera in one hand, her passport in the other. Only the night before, US government officials edited the document to allow Connie and her teammates to cross from Hong Kong into China. But even as she's walking toward her destination, Connie has no idea what’s in store for any of them. The trip wasn’t planned, and there was no itinerary. All of it has been and will be, a leap of faith.

As she looks around her, Connie notices that no one’s stopping to take in the view as they cross the metaphorical bamboo curtain. It seems like everyone around her is holding their breath – even her. 

So Connie raises her camera to snap a photo, glancing around nervously in case she’s breaking any rules. It’s a hasty shot that comes out looking more like a historical artifact than a holiday photograph. She catches a couple of armed guards standing to attention, and splashes of bright green vegetation beyond the bridge.

Then, Connie fits the lens cap back onto her camera, just moments before she and her compatriots reach the end of the bridge, where they’re welcomed by Chinese officials, who offer friendly handshakes to the athletes. It’s all such a quick moment, without any fanfare, that Connie can hardly imagine how extraordinary her trip is about to become.

In 1949, the Chinese Communist Party took control of mainland China and founded the People’s Republic of China. Following this seismic political shift, the US spent the next two decades trying to destabilize the Chinese government, believing the regime posed a danger to non-communist countries in the area. Their efforts included participation in the Vietnam War, orchestrating an international trade embargo on China, and prohibiting its citizens from visiting the United States. But by the start of the 1970s, both nations seemed eager to repair their relationship. But no one seemed to know how.

Then, at the Table Tennis World Championship in 1971, an unexpected interaction between members of the US and Chinese national teams opened a door in the seemingly impenetrable barrier between the two nations’ governments. As a result, China will invite the US table tennis team to visit the country, ostensibly for friendly competition, and nothing more. But the Americans’ whirlwind tour of China will prove far more consequential. It will culminate in a historic presidential visit, and even create a blueprint for future diplomatic efforts, all this because American athletes arrived in China on April 10th, 1971.

Introduction


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is April 10th, 1971: The Beginning of Ping Pong Diplomacy.

Act One: The gift


It’s early April 1971 in Nagoya, Japan, where the World Table Tennis Championships are being held.

At a training facility, the Chinese team is hard at work, sharpening their skills before the next match. They know they have a reputation to live up to.

In all, there are 13 nations represented at the tournament, but all anyone can talk about is the team from the People’s Republic of China. The Chinese have long been considered the world’s best, but they haven’t been seen at the Championships since 1965. A year later, in 1966, table tennis was banned as bourgeois during China’s Cultural Revolution. But this year, the county’s team is back, and dominating the field.

After their training session is done, the Chinese players climb aboard a waiting bus, ready to tackle the matches ahead. But before they can pull away from the curb, a young American player bounds up the steps and slides somewhat awkwardly into a seat. Nineteen-year-old Glenn Cowan was so wrapped up in his own training that he missed the US team bus. So now, here he is, surrounded by Chinese athletes who aren’t sure what to do.

Before they left China, the players were specifically warned to avoid any interaction with Americans. The two nations are on bad terms and have been for decades ever since China became a communist state. Most of the Chinese athletes have grown up hearing a popular slogan, “Down with the American imperialism.” So when American Glenn gets on the Chinese bus, an awkward atmosphere settles over most of the players.

A 30-year-old Zhuang Zedong isn’t suspicious or nervous. The former world champion briefly wonders whether it’s acceptable to interact with his hated enemy. But the thought is fleeting. He confidently approaches Glenn, shakes his hand, and starts a conversation with him through an interpreter. Zedong asks Glenn’s thoughts about the tournament so far, and then they drift into talking about Japan and share a little about where each comes from. It's all just polite chit-chat.

But then as they draw closer to their destination, Zedong rummages through his bag, looking for something he can give to his new friend. Gift-giving is an important aspect of Chinese culture and is seen as a way to strengthen new relationships, so he doesn’t want the American to leave the bus empty-handed. But as he takes inventory of what he has, nothing feels quite right. There are fans, pins, and even a few silk handkerchiefs. But they’re all just trinkets.

Then, Zedong finds just the thing. He pulls out a silk print of one of China’s mountains and presents it to Glenn. The print is small but beautifully captures the famous peak.

Touched by the thoughtful gesture, Glenn opens his own bag to look for something he can give to his new friend in return. But besides his table tennis kit, all he can find is a comb, which he knows won’t do. Still, the two players and the interpreter get a laugh at the thought of Glenn gifting his comb before the bus pulls to a stop and it’s time to get off.

When the athletes disembark, a number of journalists are waiting for them, eager to document the tournament favorites. But the sight of an American disembarking the Chinese bus causes a stir, and there’s a flurry of camera flashes as Glenn holds up his new silk painting. The frosty relationship between China and the US is no secret, so the sight of these countries' two star athletes in one photo is big news. When Japanese newspapers publish photographs of Zedong and Glenn together, the images make an immediate splash. But the continued development of their friendship takes media interest to another level.

The day after their meeting, Glenn finds Zedong again, excited to finally have a gift for him. He presents the Chinese player with a t-shirt emblazoned with a red, white, and blue peace symbol and the Beatles’ lyric, “Let It Be.”

After this second gift exchange, local journalists covering the tournament are eager to milk the story for all it’s worth. One of them asks Glenn if he’d like to visit China, and the 19-year-old says he’d enjoy visiting any country he’s never been to – including China.

Before the tournament, the US Team had actually requested an invitation to visit China to play some exhibition matches and were quickly turned down. But when the photos of Zedong and Glenn reach Chinese communist party chairman Mao Zedong, the leader will have a change of heart. Days later, China’s foreign department will extend an invitation to the Americans, asking them to visit China for a series of friendly matches. And just like that, ping-pong diplomacy will begin.

Act Two: Through the Bamboo Curtain


It’s mid-morning on April 10th, 1971, right on the border between Hong Kong and the People’s Republic of China.

Twenty-three-year-old Connie Sweeris shakes hands with the small assembly of Chinese government officials, then turns to give a final wave to the group of reporters standing on the Hong Kong's side of the bridge.

Connie and her teammates on the US table tennis team have just crossed into China, making them the first American group to do so in decades. Connie doesn’t know what’s in store for her, but she’s excited to find out – and just a little nervous.

In recent years, the American government has warmed up to the idea of a friendly relationship with China, believing it could help them in negotiations with North Vietnam, and perhaps bring an end to the ongoing Vietnam War. For their part, China has also been somewhat eager to improve relations with the US, because their interactions with the USSR have soured. Despite this, neither side has made any real effort toward change. But now, this visit is an unlikely first step.

Less than 24 hours ago, Connie and her teammates met with US government representatives to prepare for this unexpected trip. The officials warned the athletes to be on their best behavior, and reminded them that they were absolutely not on a political visit. They were going to China to play friendly exhibition matches, and nothing more. Then the 15 team members handed over their passports so that they could be edited. On an inside page, a short blurb warned American travelers of legal penalties if they visited any communist-controlled countries. To ensure no offense was caused at the border, the State Department representatives took black markers and drew a line through the country at the top of that list: China.

Now, the athletes hand over these edited passports to the Chinese customs agents for entry stamps. And with that paperwork taken care of, Connie and her teammates head to Beijing, where they are met by the Premier of the People's Republic of China, who personally greets each of them on the tarmac. It’s a simple but momentous gesture that demonstrates just how committed China is to the success of this tour.

From there, the Americans embark on a whirlwind tour of the nation, playing matches against their Chinese counterparts in front of capacity crowds. At Beijing’s Capital Indoor Stadium, some 20,000 people fill the stands to watch the athletes in action. But even though Connie expected her team to be trounced by their opponents, she notices that they seem to be taking it easy on her and her teammates. The Chinese players are some of the world’s best and could have easily demolished the Americans. But, likely out of respect for their visitors, the Chinese allow themselves to be beaten several times.

The gestures of friendship don’t stop there. After a match in Shanghai, Connie’s opponent hands her a token: a red velvet pennant with gold embroidery commemorating the time and date of the event. Touched by the thoughtful gift, Connie carefully packs the pennant into her suitcase, eager to show it off to her loved ones when she returns home. With no American journalists allowed in to document this trip, Connie's not sure how much news of their tour will reach the US. But mementos like the pennant offer proof that this once-in-a-lifetime experience is real and meaningful.

But unbeknownst to Connie, back in the United States, people are paying very close attention to her and the rest of the American team. News of the tour makes the New York Times, and a photograph of the American athletes atop the Great Wall graces the cover of Time Magazine. And it’s not just the public that’s captivated.

In Washington, the country’s top politicians have been keeping a careful eye on everything happening in China. Only weeks earlier, the prospect of American tourists even visiting China seemed impossible. Now, a national athletic team is being welcomed there with open arms. Even from afar, President Richard Nixon can see that relations are finally changing, and he’s eager to take advantage. 

On April 14th, four days after the table tennis team’s arrival in China, President Nixon announces that Chinese nationals will be allowed tourist visas to visit the US. It’s an important development in itself, but what follows that announcement is a rapid sequence of events that will change the course of the 20th century. In just three months, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger will secretly visit China to meet with the premier, laying the groundwork for another historic visit when President Richard Nixon is invited to China himself.

Act Three: The Presidential Trip


It’s February 21st, 1972 in Beijing, China.

On board Air Force One, US President Richard Nixon and his wife Pat wait to disembark. Just by touching down in China, Nixon has already made history as the first sitting US president to visit the country. But he’s not just here for appearances. Nixon is determined to open up diplomatic ties between the countries after decades of silence. He’s been advocating for a better relationship with China since he took office, and now, that goal has never felt closer.

Just hours after his plane landed, Nixon meets Chairman Mao Zedong, leader of the Chinese Communist Party. The two shake hands and, through a translator, exchange pleasantries and light banter about their political ideologies. It’s a brief interaction, and their only face-to-face meeting, but that will not diminish the impact of Nixon’s visit.

At the end of the week-long trip, the two countries release the Shanghai Communiqué, pledging their joint commitment to working toward bilateral relations while acknowledging their longstanding differences. The communiqué also records that the US recognizes only one China, undoing their previous support for Taiwan’s fight for independence.

In the years following Nixon’s visit to China, trade between the two countries opens up, American tourists are allowed to visit China, and full diplomatic relations are eventually established, all a result of what is remembered as ping-pong diplomacy.

In the years since the team’s US table tennis team's historic visit, sport will continue to play a role in international relations – to varying degrees of success. In recent years, some nations have been accused of using sporting events like the Olympics or the World Cup to burnish their reputations on an international stage. But despite the success or failures of these instances of sports-washing, it seems unlikely that any will ever have the kind of lasting cultural impact the US team had when they broke barriers and crossed the border into China on April 10th, 1971.

Outro


Next on History Daily. April 11th, 1951. Four months after it was stolen by Scottish nationalists from Westminster Abbey, the Stone of Destiny—used in the coronation of British monarchs for centuries—is found in the ruins of Scotland’s Arbroath Abbey.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing by Muhammed Shahzaib.

Sound design by Mollie Baack.

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Joel Callen.

Produced by Alexandra Currie-Buckner.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.