What China's Ping-Pong diplomacy taught us

This week marks the 40th anniversary of China's first baby step in its transformation from a poor, backward, hermit kingdom to the great power it is today: a table tennis tournament in Beijing that brought together U.S. and Chinese athletes.

40 years ago, a U.S. athlete got on the opposing team's bus and helped change the course of history

This week marks the 40th anniversary of China's first baby step in its transformation from a poor, backward, hermit kingdom torn apart by the madness of Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution to the great power it is today.

That first step: a table tennis tournament in Beijing that brought together teams from two avowed enemies, China and the U.S. In what became known as "Ping-Pong diplomacy," Chinese leaders used the tournament to send a message to Washington that they were ready to end the isolation of the Cultural Revolution and open up the bamboo curtain a crack to the rest of the world, most importantly to the U.S. 

That message led directly to Richard Nixon's trip to China 10 months later and what the U.S. president rightly called "the week that changed the world."

Since then, the trip has been widely celebrated as a coup on the part of the U.S. president and his foreign policy adviser, Henry Kissinger, when, in fact, it was the Chinese who had to go to great lengths to lure the Americans to Beijing.

This Feb. 25, 1972, toast between U.S. President Richard Nixon and Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai in Beijing might not have happened without the Ping-Pong diplomacy Enlai orchestrated a year earlier. ((Associated Press/file))

Both sides had good reason to bury the hatchet. As much as they detested each other, they shared an enemy they feared more: the Soviet Union.

The Americans were bogged down in Vietnam in an unpopular and costly war Nixon had promised to end.

The Chinese, in turn, had had a bitter falling out with their former comrades in Moscow, leading to border clashes that made them feel threatened by the superior Soviet power.

It occurred to them they could defang the Russian threat by making up with the Americans. Washington would, no doubt, be pleased to join in any venture to weaken Moscow's hegemony over the communist world and ease its burden in Vietnam.

Subtlety didn't work on Americans

But there was no way China's premier, Zhou Enlai, could just pick up the phone and call the White House. Party hardliners would have quickly had him purged as "a running dog of imperialists."

Neither could Nixon just contact the Chinese. His whole career was built on "commie-bashing." He needed some sort of cover to avoid accusations that he was selling out.

Zhou tried sending subtle signals. But as Kissinger would later admit in his memoirs, "our crude occidental minds completely missed the point."       

Then, the "butterfly effect" — the idea that butterflies flapping their wings in one place can cause a storm halfway around the world — came to the rescue.

Members of the U.S. table tennis team attend a discussion meeting between the Chinese and U.S. delegations to the tournament organized by Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai on April 16, 1971. (Associated Press)

The butterflies in this case were two Ping-Pong players — one American, the other Chinese — at the 1971 table tennis world championships in Tokyo in late March.

The American, a Californian hippie named Glenn Cowan, missed his team's bus one day. So, he just casually hopped on the next bus, which happened to be carrying the Chinese team.

For the Chinese, his presence was an embarrassment. They were under strict orders not to have any contact with Americans.

As the others held back, one of them, Zhuang Zedong, a three-time world champion, defied orders and stepped forward to greet Cowan.

He not only talked to the American; he gave him a silk scarf as a souvenir.

The encounter was front-page news in Japan and caught the Chinese leadership's attention.

Zhou grabbed Zhuang's idea and ran with it. He ordered a table tennis tournament to be hastily organized and invited the American team to Beijing.

Canadians came, too

Among those also invited were Canada's table tennis players, and I came along with them.

The Chinese were the best Ping-Pong players in the world. But it quickly became evident that they had matters other than winning on their minds.

The Canadians, who normally could have expected to be clobbered, found to their absolute astonishment that they were not just piling up a few token points. They were actually winning.

Ping-Pong can still be political. Here, Chinese President Hu Jintao plays table tennis with a student in Hong Kong on June 29, 2007, as pro-democracy protestors try to disrupt his visit outside on the 10th anniversary of the former British colony's return to China. ((Associated Press/file))

And in between games, their officials kept on insisting that friendship is more important than competition.

Oh, sure, you work your buns off to become a world champion, and then you take a dive out of sheer feelings of friendliness. Hardly!

But there was more to come.

The main event, it quickly turned out, was not the spin of the Ping-Pong ball but the political spin handed down from on high when the table tennis teams were invited to the Great Hall of the People to take tea with Premier Zhou.

It became clear that his message was mainly for the Americans. The premier talked almost exclusively with them for nearly two hours. He was relaxed, informal and chatty.

Over and over again, he kept stressing the friendly feelings the people of China had for the people of America. Just in case the obtuse occidentals in Washington missed his signal again, he also hinted that these feelings could be broadened into a more formal relationship.

It was quite the tea party.

'Layers of meaning'

This time, Nixon and Kissinger got it. Zhou's initiative, Kissinger later wrote, had "so many layers of meaning that the brilliantly painted surface was the least significant part."

The White House took Zhou up on his initiative. Within three months, Kissinger was in Beijing on a secret mission to arrange the Nixon trip.

And that is how a handshake by two Ping-Pong players became a turning point in the history of China and, by extension, of the world.

To Zhuang and Cowan it came naturally. You do your utmost to beat the other guys at the game you play, but sportsmanship dictates that you treat them in a friendly and respectful manner outside the arena.

If world leaders did that, too, and refrained from stirring up the political passions and prejudices of those they lead for their own ends, the world would surely be a better place.

In the end, after all that has happened as a result of Ping-Pong diplomacy, we are left 40 years later with a nagging question: where would China and the world be today if Glenn Cowan had not missed his team bus?