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Fifty years on, we could learn still from US-China ‘ping-pong diplomacy’

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This year marks the 50th anniversary of what turned out to be one of the most exciting and historically meaningful series of events of my early career. At 28, in 1971 I was a junior member of Henry Kissinger’s National Security Council (NSC) staff, his adviser on international economic policy. There were no economic or other relations between the U.S. and China — and then things changed in ways that few could have predicted, starting with what came to be known as “ping-pong diplomacy.”  

It started during the World Table Tennis Championships in Nagoya, Japan, when a member of the American team, Glen Cowan, jumped onto a shuttle bus carrying the Chinese national team. The Chinese were wary of any contact with the Americans, given the overall state of relations, but China’s most famous player, Zhuang Zedong, stepped forward to shake Cowan’s hand, engage in a short conversation and present him with a small scroll. Cowan reciprocated the following day by presenting Zhuang with a tee shirt emblazoned with a peace symbol and the words from the famous Beatles song, “Let it be.” These gestures produced a gush of news stories and photos that quickly traveled around the globe. 

China’s leader, Mao Zedong, looking for a way to improve relations with the U.S., seized on this event to invite the American team to visit China on their way home. A few days later, the team was in China. There they remained for 10 days, sight-seeing, visiting several cities and engaging in exhibition games; they even were invited to an audience with Premier Zhou Enlai.

The visit was a precursor for President Nixon’s decision to relax travel bans for Americans visiting China and restrictions on a limited amount of trade. Then came Kissinger’s historic trip to China in July 1971. In February 1972, in what Nixon called “ the week that shook the world,” a sitting U.S. president visited mainland China for the first time. The process of normalization had begun. 

But still, what most Americans saw of China during Nixon’s visit was via television. It was, to be sure, a remarkable, historic and visual experience. But except for the U.S. ping-pong team and a few visitors who managed to enter China over the years, Americans had not seen or met any mainland Chinese. And that leads to the importance of the second round of ping-pong Diplomacy.

In 1972, China’s team conducted a reciprocal trip to the U.S. This gave another enormous boost to the relationship — a highly personalized one. In April 1972, a 13-player Chinese team arrived in Detroit. Among the many places it visited was the University of Maryland, where it held a sold-out exhibition match at Cole Field House. As a member of the NSC staff, I was invited to the match, met with the team and even hit a few balls with Zhuang Zedong — which, in the ping-pong world, was similar to sparring with Muhammed Ali. My Chinese was limited to a few phrases that I had picked up as a grad student sharing a dorm floor with Chinese students at University College in Tanzania.

The Chinese team’s tour was a huge success, not just because the matches were fun to watch, but also — and more importantly — because the Chinese delegation met with everyday Americans: hundreds of eager students at the University of Michigan and the University of Maryland, workers on a farm in Tennessee, kids in a Bronx school who later proudly showed me the pictures of them playing with members of the Chinese team, characters and tourists at Disneyland, and students at Stanford University. The American news media reported on the visit daily. 

During this early period, many Americans held negative feelings toward China, and there was support in some quarters for Taiwan, so there were occasional pro-Taiwan and anti-Chinese demonstrations. But the personal contacts many Americans had with the Chinese ping-pong team helped to mitigate these feelings. Across the Pacific, China was then engaged in its Cultural Revolution and there were various groups who held strong anti-American feelings. The Nixon visit helped to diminish these. And the ping-pong team’s tour of the U.S., with extensive Chinese TV pictures of warm, personal engagements between Chinese and Americans, further softened anti-American feelings.

After my feeble attempts to return a few shots from Zhuang, I had the opportunity to visit with a number of Chinese team members and reporters. Most of the conversations centered on the importance of Americans and Chinese getting to know one another and dispelling the notion that there would be permanent hostility between the two peoples and cultures. 

Fifty years later, I’ve concluded that these visits had an impact far greater than we realized at the time. They personalized the relationship for everyday Chinese and Americans in ways that would have been hard to do through other channels.

One particularly exciting culmination, many years later, was that during an audience with Deng Xiaoping, I mentioned I had hit a few rounds of table tennis with Zhuang Zedong. His face lit up. “I think I know who won,” he said, smiling wryly. I laughed, but responded that he kindly let me win a few points to avoid my “complete humiliation.” “Ahh,” Deng replied, “a gesture of respect for you and America. That should remind you that we Chinese do believe in cooperative outcomes. Each side should gain something. Of course, if we do win a few points from time to time, you should not hold this against us. We have a lot of very talented people.” His deeper message has stayed with me.

Perhaps, in addition to the need once again for Americans and Chinese to get to know one another better, we should bear in mind that China has a huge number of talented people in many areas and they are highly competitive. If we are to compete with them — as we are now in 21st-century technologies and numerous other areas — we should realize that they will have some important successes. And we should likewise realize that we must utilize the formidable talents and skills of our own people to a far greater degree to achieve our own successes. 

China will field and cultivate its best talents in technology, science, math, physics and other fields — therefore, so must we. And we must recognize that we may not be able to go back to the halcyon days of ping-pong diplomacy, but even though we are in a period of unusually high tensions on various matters, there still are a multitude of opportunities for Chinese and Americans to come together to devise ways of cooperating to address the major challenges each of our nations — and the world — face now and in the period ahead.

Robert Hormats is managing director of Tiedemann Advisors, a New York-headquartered financial firm. He was undersecretary of State for economic growth, energy and the environment, 2009-13; a senior official of Goldman Sachs from 1982-2009; assistant secretary of State, 1981-82, and a former ambassador and deputy U.S. trade representative, 1979-81. As senior economics adviser to three White House national security advisers from 1969 to 1977, he helped to oversee the U.S. opening to China. Follow him on Twitter @BobHormats.

Tags China–United States relations Glen Cowan Henry Kissinger ping-pong diplomacy Richard Nixon Zhuang Zedong

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