U.S.-China Pingpong Diplomacy, 50 Years Later : NPR

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Chinese and American table tennis players train together in Beijing in April 1971. April 10th marks the 50th anniversary of the so-called ping-pong diplomacy between the two nations. AFP via Getty Images hide caption

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AFP via Getty Images

Chinese and American table tennis players train together in Beijing in April 1971. April 10th marks the 50th anniversary of the so-called ping-pong diplomacy between the two nations.

AFP via Getty Images

Judy Hoarfrost remembers the day she came to China half a century ago.

She was 15 years old and the youngest member of the US ping pong team to compete in the World Championships in Nagoya, Japan. Two days before the end of the tournament, Team China surprised the Americans with an invitation to come to their country and play a few games.

It was the height of the Cold War, the US did not recognize and have no relationship with the People’s Republic of China, and Americans were not allowed to travel there. But the team got quick permission from the State Department. They flew to Hong Kong and took a train to the border the next day.

“It was actually a big moment for me when I crossed the bridge,” recalled Hoarfrost. “There was this music playing and it was very, you know … It was just very engaging. It was really like a movie. It was just very dramatic.”

A delegation of US table tennis players posed with Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai (center) in Beijing in April 1971. AFP via Getty Images hides the caption

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AFP via Getty Images

A delegation of US table tennis players posed with Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai (center) in Beijing in April 1971.

AFP via Getty Images

April 10th marks the 50th anniversary of that unlikely trip, an episode known as ping-pong diplomacy. Analysts say it was these ping pong games in China that marked the first jump on the ice between the two countries.

Within three months, President Richard Nixon would announce that he had been invited to visit China. At the beginning of 1972 Beijing was supposed to be admitted to the United Nations and to the Security Council. And by the end of the decade, the United States and China would form formal diplomatic relations, paving the way for US support for China’s spectacular economic rise.

But today, as the balance of power in the Pacific shifts and US-China relations are worst in decades, analysts see the legacy of ping-pong diplomacy facing major challenges.

President Richard Nixon attended a ping-pong exhibition in Beijing in 1972 while he was in China. Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum hide caption

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Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum

President Richard Nixon attended a ping-pong exhibition in Beijing in 1972 while he was in China.

Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum

In 1971 the winds were blowing in the right direction.

Nixon really wanted to get in touch with China, also in the hope that this could help end the Vietnam War. China and the US also shared a common enemy in the Soviet Union.

Historians say that Chinese leader Mao Zedong and Prime Minister Zhou Enlai, who pushed the rapprochement on the Chinese side, were very aware of the Soviet security threat. The two countries had experienced border collisions in 1969. Mao and Zhou believed that isolation and constant alienation from the United States was ultimately bad for China.

National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger (right) plays ping pong with Adjutant Winston Lord during a trip to the People’s Republic of China in 1971. Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum hide captions

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Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum

National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger (right) plays ping pong with Adjutant Winston Lord during a trip to the People’s Republic of China in 1971.

Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum

But Chinese propaganda had portrayed America as an enemy for decades.

“When Mao wanted to improve relations with the United States, he had to prepare the Chinese public psychologically and politically,” said Yafeng Xia, senior professor of history at Long Island University and an expert on China-United States relations during the Cold War.

Chinese ping pong diplomacy player dies

He invited the US ping pong team to China and said, “It was a good public show of friendship.” It didn’t hurt that the Chinese were far superior ping pong players. When the Americans were in town, they purposely threw a few games – in the service of friendship.

But today the political winds have shifted – in both countries.

“You could say that 1971 was the book of Genesis for the chapter we are now finally over, which is that we would somehow find a way to get along and sort things out,” said Orville Schell, Arthur Ross director of the Center for US-China Relations at the Asia Society.

Bipartisan support in the United States for a tougher stance on China has increased as Beijing’s economic and military power expanded. Trump administration officials dismissed longstanding engagement policies, calling them a failure and setting out to decouple the world’s two largest economies.

The Biden government seems to be following a similar path so far.

For China, the differences between 1971 and today are very large. China’s GDP per capita has increased more than 80 times. The military has modernized quickly and can project power in ways that were unthinkable 50 years ago.

Schell said this is encouraging China’s current leader, Xi Jinping.

President Richard Nixon welcomed officials and members of the table tennis teams of the United States and China to the White House on April 18, 1972. Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum hide captions

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Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum

“Xi Jinping is very unrepentant and I am currently thinking [his] The motive is to show no respect for the West, show no need to come together or to compromise, “said Schell.

It is hard to imagine how exactly a breakthrough like ping-pong diplomacy would take place today, he added.

“In many ways it’s harder at this point I think because China is gaining strength and growing … whether it’s trust or arrogance is hard to say,” he said.

Talk of a possible boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics in China because of human rights is on the rise.

And that’s something Connie Sweeris, who starred in the 1971 trip to China, calls the opposite of what’s needed.

“You stop exchanges between normal people and athletes, and this is where I feel like barriers are being broken down,” she said.

Judy Hoarfrost agrees.

“The more of this kind of healthy exchange we have, the better we are in the chain when trying to work on bigger problems,” she said.