Glenn Cowan, an 18-year-old American ping-pong player who competed in the 1971 World Table Tennis Championship in Nagoya, Japan, missed the American team’s bus. He then took a ride with a bus filled with the Chinese table tennis team, many of whose players were initially wary of the “shaggy-haired” American hippie riding on their bus. 

The only exception on the Chinese team was Zhuang Zedong; he was interested enough to be the first of his team to interact with the foreigner. He shook Cowan’s hand, tried to connect with him through an interpreter, and gave him a silk-screen picture of the Huangshan Mountains. Without a gift in hand, Cowan could only offer Zedong a comb in return.

Using this rather unusual exchange between the ping-pong players as a diplomatic opportunity, the Chinese government then extended an invitation to the American table tennis team to visit China, which the Americans accepted. On 10th April 1971, the United States’ delegation of athletes and their spouses, journalists, and officials crossed the bridge from Hong Kong to mainland China—becoming the first Americans to set foot in China ever since it became a communist state in 1949.

The impact of this tour was nothing short of powerful. After the American visit to China, both nations slowly opened up to each other by easing economic and travel barriers, as well as strengthening backdoor communications. These diplomatic efforts eventually resulted in a historic event when President Nixon became the first American president to visit the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

This series of events and actions that revolved around this particular sport became stepping stones in normalizing US-China relations. Such a historically significant exchange between these two nations has come to be famously called “ping-pong diplomacy.”

Before The Sino-American Ice Was Broken

Before ping-pong diplomacy, the relationship between the People’s Republic of China and the United States was fraught in tension and stark contrasts. During the Chinese Civil War which lasted from 1927 to 1949, the United States backed Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalist government, which was then defeated by the Mao Zedong-led communists. When Mao’s faction won the war and declared China a communist state in 1949, the United States then severed ties with the country and backed the nationalists who fled to the island of Taiwan.

China and the United States continued to be at odds with each other. During the Korean War, China supported Kim Il-Sung’s North Korea in its invasion of its Southern neighbour, while the Americans defended South Korea. The United States would also continue to support the Taiwanese government against any communist invasion of the island. 

The perception of each other’s nations also deteriorated during this time of conflict. During the Red Scare between 1947 and 1957, American politicians were hunting down citizens who were allegedly spying for the Soviet Union, making the American public perceive communist countries like China as enemies. In the early years of China’s cultural revolution, a government-run purge was launched with the goal of eliminating any imperial, Western and/or capitalist elements in the nation.

When The Diplomatic Ice Started To Melt

The Sino-American divide began to narrow when the ideological conflict between China and the Soviet Union worsened throughout the 1950s and 60s. The Sino-Soviet split became prominent when the Soviet leader, Joseph Stalin, died in 1953. Chinese dictator Mao Zedong assumed that he would be the leader of the communist world, which resulted in frustration when Stalin’s successors, Malenkov and Khrushchev, did not acknowledge his authority. The split only widened as the two countries clashed over the direction of the communist world order. The Chinese accused Khrushchev of being soft on the West, while the Soviets were threatened by China’s ambitions to be the premier communist state in the world. 

After almost two decades of sharp insults and fundamental differences, China realized that it would be better to counteract Soviet hostility by improving relations with other nations—particularly the United States. At the same time, in the late 60s, the United States (also threatened by the Soviet Union) acknowledged the divide between the Soviets and the Chinese. In a Foreign Affairs article published in 1967, then-presidential candidate Richard Nixon made the case for possibly normalizing relations with China:

…we simply cannot afford to leave China forever outside the family of nations, there to nurture its fantasies, cherish its hates, and threaten its neighbors. There is no place on this small planet for a billion of its potentially most able people to live in angry isolation.

When Nixon became president in 1969, his first actions regarding China were to lift travel and trade restrictions between the two countries—capitalizing on the Sino-Soviet divide. Then, both American and Chinese diplomats began diplomatic talks in Warsaw, Poland to work on possibly improving relations. 

These efforts, however, did not necessarily create the meaningful progress needed to normalize relations.  In an interview with Spheres of Influence, Professor Hyer first describes how “national pride” and the “overthinking” by the United States and China made the process slow and in dire need of a breakthrough.“I don’t think we should allow the context [about the history between China and America] to diminish the fact that both were tentative in moving forward,” says Eric Hyer, an associate professor of political science at Brigham Young University.

Breaking The Ice With Ping-Pong Diplomacy

The events in Nagoya and the American ping-pong team’s tour in China became the breakthrough both sides needed to forge diplomatic ties. “Ping-pong diplomacy kind of broke the ice,” Professor Hyer says. “Behind the ping-pong competition was certainly an effort by [the United States and China] to recognize that they had common interests that [they] shared,” one of them being the containment of the Soviet threat.

Normalizing Sino-American relations after ping-pong diplomacy, however, was still not easy—particularly for China, which had previously touted and sponsored anti-American propaganda during the Cultural Revolution. “Mao Zedong had to prepare the Chinese people to brace a very fundamental turn in Chinese foreign relations,” Professor Hyer says. 

Professor Hyer then contrasts the Chinese government’s careful preparations to the relatively easier experience for the US government in selling the idea of better Sino-American relations to the public. “There were already lots of people in the United States who were advocating better relations with the Chinese—people from different political views.” The business community was keen on having stronger relations with China in hopes of getting access to the large Chinese consumer market, while some on the left wanted to be closer with countries that symbolized the socialist ideology.

Ping-Pong Diplomacy in the 21st Century

April 2021 marked the 50th anniversary of ping-pong diplomacy between the United States and China; organizations from both countries were eager to arrange events to commemorate the historic cultural exchange. On April 10th, 2021, exactly half a century after the US delegation set foot in China, an anniversary ceremony and an exhibit were organized in Shanghai to celebrate the history of ping-pong diplomacy. After the ceremony, four teams played in ping-pong matches to relive the warm interactions between the Americans and Chinese in 1971.

Ping-pong diplomacy is certainly a way to encourage friendship between two countries and their people; however, its effectiveness nowadays has waned over the past fifty years. “I honestly think it’s less effective,” Professor Hyer says.

Professor Hyer mainly attributes the decline of ping-pong diplomacy’s effectiveness to the rise of social media. “We’re always connected. The Chinese know intimately and quickly [about] what’s going on in the United States, and people in the United States who are interested certainly know what’s going on in China.” Social media has brought the world together, he said, but the interconnectedness has made practices like ping-pong diplomacy lose their rarity. “[Ping-pong diplomacy] doesn’t have the same shock value, I think, as it used to have because media [and] social media is all around us.”

That is not to say that ping-pong diplomacy—or any kind of cultural exchange—holds no value in today’s geopolitics; if executed correctly, a cultural exchange can pave the path towards friendly relations. For instance, Professor Hyer suggests holding a grand Greco-Roman wrestling tournament would be a compelling way to de-escalate tensions between the United States and Iran, who are currently at odds with each other over Iran’s development of nuclear weapons. 

“Greco-Roman wrestling is very popular in Iran, and maybe this is a moment when some non-governmental organization or some sporting organization should get together and propose to have a wrestling match.” If done correctly, this sort of “wrestling diplomacy” could put the US-Iran relation on a much better trajectory and become part of ping-pong diplomacy’s legacy.

The fruits of such diplomacy can only sprout when countries are willing to end calculated “political games” in which choices where one avoids the image of forfeiting to the other side are made.“Leaders on both sides are very reluctant to move forward with cultural and sporting exchanges if, in any way, that they were to concede to the other side,” Professor Hyer says, pointing back to the difficulties between China and the United States’ reluctance to make any diplomatic moves. 

Even with all the calculated moves and hesitations, Professor Hyer still believes that exchanges like ping-pong diplomacy are still worth the work. “I would definitely say that we should do it. I think that the benefits far outweigh the costs. We’re not risking war here. We’re not risking some financial disaster.” In the effort to revitalize or create new foreign relations, there is no cost too great that could eclipse the benefits that would certainly serve all parties involved.

Mikael Borres

Mikael is currently a political science student at the University of San Carlos. His academic interests include global diplomatic history, the relationship between pop culture and government, and democratic...