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Ping Pong Diplomacy: cross-cultural understanding as an American in China

To find the origins of ‘Ping-Pong Diplomacy’ one must look back to a  tense period in modern history; the Cold War era between the West and the East, the Capitalist U.S. and Communist China. Zero communication between these two geographical heavyweights for almost two decades since the Communist leader Mao Zedong took over in 1949.

Nobody would have predicted that the most unlikely diplomatic tool ‘ping pong’ would be the facilitator to end this hostile period of toxic diplomatic relations between China and the U.S. This is the beginning of Ping Pong Diplomacy.

It all begun during the World Table Tennis Championship that was held in Nagoya, Japan on the 6th of April in 1971. The Chinese ping pong team surprisingly invited the U.S. team to the Republic of China. Time Magazine referred to this as, “The ping heard round the world” since no American had ever been invited to China since Mao Zedong took control of Communist China. The fractured world was wondering in unanimous confusion as to why the Americans were invited?

What China wanted to achieve was to let their already hostile neighbors know that they were opening doors to make possible alliances. The U.S. gladly welcomed the opportunity with President Nixon understanding that the U.S. could not afford to leave China outside the family of nations.

The build up

The invitation was more or less like a well calculated public relations ploy orchestrated by the Chinese government and two unsuspecting ping pong players from the East and the West. It all started when Glenn Cowan, an American player missed the team’s bus after practice and was offered a ride by Zhuang Zedong, a Chinese player. The press covered this friendly display of good will and what followed was the Ping Pong Diplomacy plans. This was unfamiliar diplomatic territory, and there was no way the Americans would miss that chance. On April 10th, 1971, the American team of nine with four officials ten journalists ( five Americans) and two spouses stepped across a bridge from Hong Kong to the Chinese Mainland, ushering in an era known as “ Ping-Pong diplomacy” era.

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The ping pong match

Ping Pong

From April 11th to 17th, 1971, the American public who were glued to their televisions out of hope and trepidation keenly followed the daily progress of the Americans. The Americans played and lost the exhibition matches to their hosts, but the meaning of the match surpassed simple sporting competitiveness it now encapsulated a whole new cross-cultural possibility. The U.S. team toured the Summer Place and Great Wall, exchanged stories and perspectives with Chinese factory workers and students, dined in the Great Hall of the People and also attended Canton Ballet.

The American trip culminated at Beijing’s Great Hall of the People, where the team had such a historic audience with Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai. The meeting was more official and democratic that there organic journey through China. With Zhou congratulating the players on thus opening a new chapter in Chinese-U.S. relations. Premier Zhou beautifully worked the public relations and stated how he believed that it was just the beginning of an unending friendship that will receive support from both parties.

The aftermath

The American Table Tennis team would then leave China on April 17, arriving back to Hong Kong only to find a swarm of reporters waiting for them. This extension of an olive branch was already bearing fruits since on April 14; President Nixon announced that the U.S. was easing its 20-year trade embargo’s and travel bans against China. The Chinese and American governments would then strike another new unexplored step in their immensely important relationship with continuous communication with one another.

Since President Nixon didn’t want to lose the momentum, he secretly sent Henry Kissinger, Secretary of State to Peking to arrange a presidential visit to China. Kissinger’s held talks with Zhou and Mao yielded an American promise to remove the U.S. forces from Taiwan in return for Chinese support of a negotiated settlement in Vietnam. The ripple effects of what had now become the infamous ‘Ping-Pong Diplomacy’ continued the following year  and has shape cultural relations today.

To respond to the American trip, the Chinese would then send their table tennis team to the U.S. for an eight-city tour. But in February 1972, diplomacy between the two countries reached a new peak when President Nixon decided to visit the People’s Republic of China for the first time. People might ask what did President Nixon’s visit to China mean? Well, the moment is recorded in history as the very first time that a U.S. president had traveled to the Chinese mainland.

President Nixon’s visit

It was an eight-day trip and President Nixon would refer to it as ‘The week that changed the world’. Nixon met with Chairman Mao and Premier Zhou Enlai and started to normalize the Chinese-U.S. relationship as if it had existed for decades. Nixon wrote about his visit years later acknowledging how the Chinese leaders were very delightful about the instrument that was the sporting match of ping-pong was crucial to initiate a breakthrough between the U.S. and China’s previously cold relationship. On his second night in China, he also wrote that if they didn’t make our best effort then one day they will be confronted with the most formidable enemy that has ever existed in the history of the word.

Despite the fact that both governments still had a significant amount of diplomacy needed to repair the initially damaged relationship, many of the Chinese and American citizens were quite optimistic and hopeful that the spirit of ‘Ping Pong Diplomacy’ would remain to facilitate cooperation between the two very powerful nations. Chairman Mao in a rare public appearance coined a famous metaphor ‘The little ball moves the big Ball.’ referencing the usefulness of the ping pong match in geopolitical relations.

Ping Pong Diplomacy used in President Bush’s visit

In February 2002, when President George W. Bush took his second Chinese trip he referenced the meeting that was born from Ping-Pong Diplomacy. Telling the then Chinese President Jiang Zemen that 30 years had passed from when President Nixon had shown the world that two hugely different governments could meet on the grounds of common interest and mutual respect.

Ping Pong Diplomacy and it’s effects today

Ping Pong

China planned how they would use ping-pong as a way of reinstating political relationships between the USA and China and discreet diplomatic correspondence had already been taking place between them. With careful planning, the offer was made to appear like a spontaneous act of friendship and kindness, but it was well calculated and meticulously planned by the Chinese leaders. The media coverage that was centered just around the game between the U.S. and China. China has reincarnated this simple sport when improving relations with England. Ping pong’s history is intertwined with some of the most influential political agreements ever made, and it’s importance to the Chinese people should not be underestimated.

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Ping Pong Diplomacy: cross-cultural understanding as an American in China
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