Fifty years ago, at the height of the Cold War, Japan hosted the World Table Tennis Championships. What was supposed to be an event of no political relevance served as the stage for one of the most fascinating and significant diplomatic maneuvers of our time. A new chapter has opened in the history of relations between the United States and China.
At some point in the competition, American player Glenn Cowan mistakenly boarded the bus driving the Chinese table tennis team. The bus is gone. Along the way, with the help of an interpreter, world champion Zhuang Zedong struck up a conversation with the American. She presented him with images of Chinese mountains painted on silk.
Correctly alerted, the press was ready to record the moment the bus reached its destination. Photos circulated around the world of the unusual – and friendly – meeting between representatives of countries whose diplomatic relations had been broken for two decades.
Two days before the end of the competition, the Chinese team surprised the American team with an invitation to visit China. It was essentially like this, almost suddenly – but with daring diplomacy behind the scenes – that the first official visit of an American delegation to China took place in more than 20 years.
On April 14, 1971, in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, the American team was received by Prime Minister Zhou Enlai. In front of static young Americans, the Prime Minister announced, “You have opened a new chapter in the history of the peoples of China and the United States.”
So-called ping-pong diplomacy served as a catalyst to bring China and the United States, which at the time had a common enemy in the Soviet Union, closer together. Richard Nixon wanted to end the Vietnam War. Mao Zedong wanted to bring China out of its isolation. The interest was mutual – despite the fact that the mistrust was enormous and fed on each other.
Ping-pong helped prepare the audience for the idea of a rapprochement. He humanized a relationship until then seen only from a geopolitical angle. More than a distraction, it helped both sides put the differences aside.
The episode paved the way for Nixon to visit China the following year. In 1972, the US president visited Beijing, Shanghai and Hangzhou – the same cities the table tennis team had visited the year before.
Since then, the world has seen the rise and fall of bilateral relations.
This week, the anniversary of ping-pong diplomacy prompted events in Shanghai, speeches by Chinese diplomats, and local press reports evoking the spirit of the moment. In the United States, this no longer resonates.
The American policy of engagement with China, inaugurated by ping-pong diplomacy, ends its cycle exactly 50 years later. It did not end with Donald Trump. The end is decreed by Joe Biden, as he continues the line of his predecessor. It is not known what will replace the commitment, but it is certain that, as it is conceived, it has no future.
Fittingly, Biden seeks to correct various aspects of Trump’s foreign policy. In China, however, he hesitates. Trump’s toxic legacy has left deep marks in the United States It’s still early days to draw conclusions, but there are many signs of Trumpism without Trump.
It’s ironic that just as ping-pong is remembered, voices in the United States are defending the boycott of the Beijing Olympic Winter Games in 2022. They probably won’t boycott, but the mere discussion of the question is emblematic of the change in attitude.
In 1971, during the championship in Japan, Glenn Cowan, presented by his Chinese colleague, was looking for something to give him in return. The improvised keepsake of the long-haired, hippie-looking player and Beatles fan was a T-shirt with the words “Let it Be” on it. Certainly other times. The game is different now.
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