In April 1971, an American taking part in the World Table Tennis Championship in Nagoya, Japan, missed his bus after practice. Glenn Cowan boarded the Chinese team’s bus instead, and Zhuang Zedong stepped forward to greet him.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Within a few days, the U.S. team received an official invitation to visit China and play a series of exhibition matches. On April 10, 1971, a group of ping-pong players became the first Americans to be given official sanction to visit China since the Chinese Communist Party completed its takeover of the country in 1949.
The trip became an international sensation, closely followed by media around the world. Top Chinese leaders including Zhou Enlai personally greeted the visiting Americans with handshakes and smiles. The breakthrough – what became known as “ping-pong diplomacy” – was a precursor to more official exchanges: National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger’s secret trip to China in July 1971 and President Richard Nixon’s official visit the next year.
Nearly 53 years later, on January 1, 2024, another group of Americans boarded a flight to China. Their goal: to retrace the steps of the 1971 American table tennis players – and undertake some “ping-pong diplomacy” of their own.
Twelve undergraduate students from the University of Virginia (UVA) played a series of friendly ping-pong matches with counterparts from Tsinghua University, Fudan University, and the Shanghai University of Sport – always doubles matches, with one partner from each country, to avoid giving the competition an adversarial tint.
The trip began on an auspicious day: the 45th anniversary of the official establishment of diplomatic ties between the United States and the People’s Republic of China. In a speech commemorating the occasion, China’s Ambassador to the U.S. Xie Feng spoke of the importance of reviving people-to-people exchanges: “[T]he more difficulties there are, the greater the need for us to forge a closer bond between our peoples.”
Indeed, jumpstarting people-to-people relations – the official term for the many and varied unofficial exchanges that exist between countries, from study abroad to tourism – was a key goal at the November 2023 summit between Presidents Joe Biden and Xi Jinping.
The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a major toll on all levels of people-to-people ties, including foreign exchange programs. There were 372,532 Chinese nationals studying in the United States in 2019-20, a record high; that dropped to just 289,526 in 2022-23, a 22 percent decrease.
But the problem didn’t end with the pandemic. Tensions at the government level, accompanied by growing mistrust among the countries’ publics, also played a role. Hostile examinations by customs officials and suspicion of researchers with Chinese backgrounds are still deterring many young Chinese from studying in the U.S., even after the full reopening of China’s borders.
On the U.S. side, the downslide in students heading to China predates the pandemic. According to data from the Institute of International Education (IIE), in the 2018-19 school year there were 11,639 U.S. nationals studying in China. That was already down from the peak of 14,887 in 2011-12; after that, the numbers began a steady slide until landing in the 11,000s.
Those already diminished numbers cratered to just a few hundred when the pandemic hit.
The University of Virginia was one of the many American universities to be affected. According to Stephen Mull, the vice provost for global affairs at UVA, the university’s study abroad program in China “kind of hit a dead end” when the pandemic began. “We haven’t had students there since 2020 in any kind of program.”
And COVID-19 wasn’t the only factor: “People are afraid of the political situation,” Mull noted. “They’re afraid of getting arrested if they go to China.”
Attempting to find a way to revive ties, Mull recalled the history of ping-pong diplomacy. “I was just a kid, but I remember what a sensation it was for American ping-pong players to go to ‘Red China’ – a place that was just a complete and total mystery to Americans and with which we had no contact, really, at the time,” he said.
Back in 1971, China-U.S. relations “were a lot worse,” than today, Mull pointed out. In fact, relations “didn’t even exist” when the original ping-pong diplomacy launched.
“So I thought, well, that worked before, maybe it will work again.”
Partners in China were enthusiastic about the idea, he said, as was the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.
The Chinese Embassy in Washington, D.C., was supportive as well. Spokesperson Liu Pengyu, in an emailed statement to The Diplomat, pointed out that the Peking University table tennis team had played in the USATT Table Tennis Open Championships as well.
“The mutual visits added a new chapter to the stories of China-U.S. friendship that began with ping-pong diplomacy and new impetus to people-to-people exchanges,” Liu said.
The timing was perfect – both governments were keen to engage. Similar interest at the top levels of leadership also made the original ping-pong diplomacy possible.
A U.S. National Security Council staff memo dated April 9, 1971, stated, “The primary significance of the invitation [to the American team] is its reflection of Peking’s [Beijing’s] openness and self-confidence in handling its foreign relations.” The memo dubbed the trend China’s “‘smiles’ diplomacy.”
Today, China is once again practicing “smiles diplomacy” by making frequent call-backs to the “good old days” of China-U.S. relations. That includes ping-pong diplomacy, but also the “Flying Tigers” – the U.S. pilots who aided China’s battle against Imperial Japan’s invasion in the 1930s – and, more recently, the people in Iowa who befriended a young Xi Jinping during a work tour in the 1980s.
“I was completely surprised; this visit became a media sensation,” Mull said. “We had dozens of reporters following us everywhere.”
The trip even received a positive mention in a Chinese Foreign Ministry press conference on January 9. “Fifty-three years ago, young table tennis players from China and the U.S. kick-started the progress toward normalizing China-U.S. relations in Beijing,” spokesperson Mao Ning said at the time. “…The more people-to-people exchanges our two countries have, the greater the public support, prospects and dynamism for China-U.S. relations will be.”
To Mull, the intensity of the welcome was striking. “At every step we could not have been welcomed more warmly,” he said. “The atmosphere even compared to when I had last been there in May  was just incredibly different.
“Last May, my Chinese counterparts and universities there were very nervous about the prospect of any kind of cooperation between American and Chinese higher education. That has completely changed. You could tell there was strong political pressure coming from Xi Jinping himself to really open China’s doors to host American students.”
For Mull, the immediate goal of the trip was to help prepare the group of UVA students “to engage in a constructive and thoughtful way in this really important relationship.”
In the medium term, the hope was that the trip “could be an important turning point for our and, I hope, other institutions of higher learning start to engage again in China,” Mull said.
Beyond the actual ping-pong matches, like the American players who visited China in 1971, the UVA students toured famous locales, from Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City in Beijing to the Great Wall to the Bund in Shanghai. They also received briefings from the U.S. Embassy in Beijing and U.S. Consulate in Shanghai and met with UVA alumni in each city.
For Yihui Yap, a first-year student at UVA, “following in the footsteps” of the first Americans to practice ping-pong diplomacy was crucial. “We learnt about the theory of ping-pong diplomacy and how it came to be in the past, but having participated in it ourselves and interacting with Chinese university students who also play ping-pong was really what made the trip extra special,” Yap told The Diplomat.
“I still keep in touch with the friends I made there and plan to visit them again. I felt first-hand what the players in 1971 and 1972 felt when they played together and befriended each other.”
Many of the students considered the trip a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and a unique experience to connect with their Chinese peers, in particular.
“Without these games, me and the rest of the students on the trip would have never gotten the opportunity to build such personal relationships,” Allan Cheng, a second-year student at UVA, told The Diplomat.
“I know many of us, including myself, are still in frequent contact with the students we met in China.”
As the incoming president of the UVA Table Tennis Club, Cheng was one of the most experienced players in the group. He even spent a summer in China playing ping-pong while in middle school. But he said this trip was different: “While I’ve been exposed to Chinese culture in the past, the genuine person to person connections I made as a result of the ping-pong matches allowed me to experience Chinese culture through the viewpoint of a young adult living and studying in China.”
Misa Layne, a second-year student at UVA, admitted she had some “apprehension about not being as skilled in ping-pong as most attendees.” But, she said, “I quickly discovered the friendly and kind nature of the participating Chinese students. The one-on-one banter on the sidelines of the game, discussing the everyday life of a student, and even mundane aspects like homework, created a sense of camaraderie.”
“This spirit of sharing permeated our entire trip,” Layne said. “… I realized our hosts wanted to do their part in fostering Sino-American ties just as much as we did.”
The trip is already paying dividends. Many of the students told Mull they were interested in going back to China for longer-term study. “Their curiosity has really been piqued,” he said.
Mull is hopeful about the prospect of formally resuming UVA’s study abroad connections in China, which was part of the impetus for the trip. He noted that “the Chinese government has continued to signal it wants to do a lot to get more Americans to come there. Back in November, Xi Jinping committed to bring 50,000 American students to China over the next five years, and he’s backing up that commitment with quite a sizable investment of funds.”
Mull predicted, “I think that the needle is going to be going up again. I think we’ll see more and more American students at all levels going back” to study in China.
Yap and two of her classmates are already making plans to study abroad in China for a semester, which she called a “testament to how much I enjoyed myself.”
Yap, a first-year student, may reap the benefits of the doors that are slowly reopening. For Margaux Reppert, a fourth-year student double-majoring in Global Public Health and Chinese, this trip was her only chance to visit China as part of her undergraduate experience.
“Due to COVID restrictions, the UVA Game Change course this January was my first and only study abroad trip to China, and I am extremely grateful for the opportunities it provided me to practice my Mandarin skills, experience more Chinese culture, and participate in a celebratory people-to-people anniversary,” Reppert told The Diplomat.
As a Chinese major, she was able to converse in Mandarin with her Chinese counterparts. “It was really interesting to ask them questions about my perception of life as a college student in China, and answer some of theirs about life as a college student in the U.S.,” Reppert said.
“Sometimes this may lead to ‘tricky questions,’ but it’s important to approach these questions with an open mind and understand they are likely stemming from a place of genuine curiosity.”
Those difficult discussion are part of the learning experience. Mull noted that the students developed “a better understanding of China and China’s view of the world” through these conversations – including on perennial sore points in the China-U.S. relationship, like Taiwan’s status and human rights.
“That doesn’t mean that they agreed with” everything they head. “Far from that,” Mull said. “But they developed more of an understanding of what China thinks of these issues.”
Mull, who had a 30-plus-year career at the U.S. State Department, deeply understands the value of people-to-people diplomacy when official ties are turning sour. Without such connections, “what starts to happen is that people begin to develop views of the other country based on fear… and that that’s just not a good recipe for advancing our own interests as a country.
“If we don’t know what’s going on inside of China, if we don’t know what interests might they have in common with us… we’re destined to have a deeper and deeper divide between us and that increases the chances for conflict.”
China-U.S. relations are unlikely to return to their heyday of the 1980s, when an anti-Soviet agenda drove them together. People-to-people diplomacy isn’t a panacea for the huge structural issues facing the relationship, but it is a crucial way to limit the damage.
“I don’t know if I’d be so bold to say that this one trip of 12 students from UVA is going to have a dramatic impact on the direction of U.S.-Chinese relations,” Mull mused, “but I think it will definitely help.”