Today, we tend to take U.S.-China relations for granted. It’s hard to remember that a little over 40 years ago, there was no direct contact between Beijing and Washington, DC – and yet somehow, a group of U.S. ping-pong players would be instrumental in breaking the ice. The Diplomat‘s Justin McDonnell interviewed Nicholas Griffin, the author of Ping-Pong Diplomacy: The Secret History Behind the Game That Changed the World, about the role of ping-pong diplomacy in breaking the ice, and what role sports diplomacy can play in the world today.
The Diplomat: Given the decades of distrust and isolation between Chinese and U.S. citizens, how difficult was it for the events of 1971 to materialize? Did the U.S. table tennis team face backlash at home as a result of the trip?
Nicholas Griffin: There was of course, an immense amount of distrust to overcome and that’s why Nixon and Kissinger made the decision to exclude the State Department from their initial approach to Beijing. It was all very hush-hush, hand written notes from Premier Zhou Enlai coming and going in diplomatic bags via the Pakistanis. The only problem was that the channel went cold. There was still so much room for misinterpretation that Kissinger and Nixon had missed what the Chinese thought was an obvious public gesture – putting an American journalist next to Mao during a parade. Kissinger and Nixon then had to endure three months of silence before the Ping-Pong invitation. In one sense, the advent of Ping-Ping Diplomacy brought huge relief to the White House, but it also worried Kissinger. He’d set up that elaborate back channel and then suddenly here was a bunch of Ping-Pong players wandering around Beijing. There was so much that could have gone wrong – much more than Kissinger knew at the time. As for the American table tennis players who suddenly found themselves standing in Tiananmen Square, none of them had any real knowledge of China. They only had 48 hours to prepare themselves for the trip over from Nagoya where they’d first met the Chinese squad. It was plenty of time to worry about the consequences of the visit but none of them could guess what a sensation their trip would become. There was no access to the world’s newspapers until the moment they left China a week later. They were stunned, but also relieved to know that the trip had been headline news around the world.
How did the events of 1971 specifically abet the formal establishment of relations between the U.S. and China in 1979?
Ping-Pong may have been the most unlikely method of communication ever, but it was vital. It defused tensions, won over the respective populations and created a huge amount of breathing room for Nixon, Mao and Zhou Enlai to operate within. It’s easy to forget how quickly this happened, but within a month for the first time a majority of Americans favored China’s entering the UN.
There were similar gestures toward Cuba but exchanges failed to thaw relations between Havana and Washington. Why was the U.S.-China exchange in particular so successful?
People don’t understand just how meticulous China’s preparation was for Ping Pong Diplomacy. They’d been using table tennis as a political tool for almost 20 years and had already used it to help cover up the Great Famine in 1961 when they hosted the World Table Tennis Championships in Beijing while millions were dying around the country. The players who were sent to Japan were well trusted and the man who made the approach to the Americans was a political figure (later he’d rise all the way to the Central Committee). The official in charge of the team had been a military analyst for the PLA. The approach to the American Ping-Pong players was run straight from the leadership compound. Zhou Enlai arranged pretty much everything about the trip himself, even choosing the pilot who’d fly the team back and forth from Japan. The whole approach to the US was made to look spontaneous but there was nothing spontaneous whatsoever about the moment. The American players were more like marks in a con game than equal participants.
Mao was quoted as saying, “the small Ping-Pong ball could be used to move the large ball of earth.” How was Ping Pong used and manipulated as a political tool under Mao?
Mao and Zhou Enlai had played the game back in the caves of Yenan. Yet the only reason they embraced table tennis as a national sport was because the International Federation was controlled by an Englishman called Ivor Montagu. He was an aristocrat, Hitchcock’s film producer and a spy for the Soviet Union. He arrived in Beijing in the early 1950s and laid the way for China’s entrance into the International Federation. As far as the Chinese were concerned, all sports were political anyway but obviously having a Communist as chairman of an international body was very unusual. Once the Chinese started to concentrate on Ping-Pong, they found that a little money went a long way. There wasn’t enough money anywhere else in the world for individuals to compete against a state. When Mao was pushing China as a third option for the developing world to turn to in place of either America or Russia, he’d send the Ping-Pong team out ahead as sporting ambassadors. They weren’t shy about pushing ‘Mao Zedong thought’ and there were incidents in various countries where they got into trouble for practicing too much politics and not playing enough Ping-Pong. Every now and then the stars would combine in their favor. Who knew that Ghana’s Minister of Defense in the 1960s was also the head of its table tennis federation?
You also present Japan’s former world table tennis champion and president of the International Trade Tennis Federation Ichiro Ogimura in your book. What role did he play in helping restore Japan and the country’s post-WWII pacifist image?
The Chinese studied Ogimura intently. They were fascinated by how the rest of the world seemed to react to his victories in international tournaments. He’d been booed and hissed at when he’d first walked through post-war London in the 1950s yet two years later he’d be cheered through Europe. There was something about table tennis – perhaps it seemed so familiar and harmless – that it made it much easier to think of those countries that played it well as benign.
How would you assess the self-proclaimed ambassador Dennis Rodman and his trips to North Korea? Does his “basketball diplomacy” have the potential to influence relations between North Korea and the United States? How is different than the ping-pong diplomacy back in the early 1970s?
Just because you walk onto a court in a foreign country doesn’t mean that you’re practicing diplomacy. Ping-Pong Diplomacy only worked because of the effort the Chinese put into its preparation and because even that was built on the pre-existing (albeit secret) goodwill between Nixon and Kissinger and Mao and Zhou Enlai. It’s very hard, but not impossible, to imagine that happening again. I’d say that it’s not so much up to Rodman as it is up to the North Koreans. In this case, I don’t think there’s much behind it. The Chinese behavior before Ping-Pong Diplomacy included everything from releasing a dying American priest, to changing visa requirements to granting interviews to American journalists. A bunch of aging ex-pro basketball players accepting an undisclosed fee from a man who just executed his uncle is a far cry from a group of unpaid Ping-Pong players landing in 1971 Beijing.
Why has sport diplomacy remained a largely untapped diplomatic tool to initiate the rebuilding of fraught relations between nations? Do you think sport is a great equalizer?
For sport to work as actual diplomacy, it has to take place within a pre-existing diplomatic framework. The legacy of Ping-Pong Diplomacy is that few people know just how meticulous the Chinese were in their preparation in 1971. That means most still think that all you have to do is ask Iran for a wrestling match and hey presto, no more sanctions and nuclear programs. I’d end by saying there are even greater moments for sport than its use as a diplomatic tool. I always think of Karoli Karpati, a Hungarian Jew who wrestled in the 1936 Olympics. He beat the German favorite in the gold medal match while Hitler watched. Apparently Hitler left without shaking his hand. Karpati delivered something in that full and silent stadium that rose above the interests of nations.