Can China, US repeat ‘Ping-Pong Diplomacy’?
Published: Apr 08, 2021 07:02 PM
Illustration: Xia Qing/GT

Illustration: Xia Qing/GT

Editor's Note: 

The year 2021 marks the 50th anniversary of "Ping-Pong Diplomacy." On April 10, 1971, after participating in the World Table Tennis Championships in Nagoya, Japan, and at the invitation from China, the US table tennis team became the first US delegation to visit the Chinese mainland since 1949. This visit was an ice-breaking trip for both countries, opening the door to China-US exchanges which had been shut for 22 years. This move was portrayed by scholars as "Ping-Pong Diplomacy." In 1987, Qian Jiang, a senior journalist, published a book entitled, "Ping-pong Diplomacy": The Beginning and End, which was revised and expanded a decade later in 1997. Was "Ping-Pong Diplomacy" an accidental event, or an inevitable one? During Joe Biden's term, can both countries repeat the success of "the small ping-pong ball that moved the big Earth ahead"? Global Times (GT) reporter Lu Yuanzhi interviewed Qian on these issues.

GT: Why did you want to write "Ping-Pong Diplomacy"?

Around 1984, I hoped to write about career experience of Song Zhong, who was acting president of the China Table Tennis Association during the 1971 World Table Tennis Championships, and in "Ping-Pong Diplomacy." It was Song who sent the invitation to the US table tennis team to visit China in 1971. I was introduced to Song to record his historical dictation. After the in-depth interview with him, I made up my mind to carry out extensive interviews and researches of the "Ping-Pong Diplomacy," which would involve more important figures, so that I would present the whole picture of the event.

GT: In your book "Ping-pong Diplomacy": The Beginning and End, you mentioned that before the 1971 World Table Tennis Championships, a special meeting was held that was attended by officials from the Foreign Ministry and State Commission for Physical Culture and Sports, with premier Zhou Enlai presiding. Zhou said, "Our table tennis team represents our country and our people… It will come into contacts with many teams from other countries including the US." Do you think "Ping-Pong Diplomacy" was an accidental event, or an inevitable one?

In order to write the book, I also interviewed senior officials from the Chinese Embassy in Pakistan and the Pakistani foreign ministry. To the best of my knowledge, China and the US had had secret contacts even before "Ping-Pong Diplomacy." China and the US beginning to open the door to bilateral public exchanges via table tennis was accidental. But even without the event, the two countries would have found another way to break the ice, and gradually normalize their ties.

GT: In 1985, you interviewed former US president Richard Nixon after he delivered a speech at the Beijing-based University of International Business and Economics. You had interactions with him at that time. What impression did Nixon leave you with?

Despite being a former president at the time, Nixon was approachable. When I extended my hand for a handshake, he immediately offered his hand. This was beyond my expectation. His notion on China-US relations was clear. He deserves credit for attempting to break the ice between the two countries. 

According to his memoirs, he had paid attention to diplomatic activities for a long time. He served as US vice president from 1953 to 1961, becoming a political elite years before he was elected US president in 1968. He witnessed that official relations between the two countries were almost frozen, and a lose-lose result for both sides. He believed it was necessary for both countries to break the ice. His attempts to step up communications and understanding between the two countries were not only conductive to China and the US, but to the whole world as well.

GT: The year 2021 marks the 50th anniversary of "Ping-Pong Diplomacy." What do you think is the significance of commemorating "Ping-Pong Diplomacy"?

The bilateral relations between Beijing and Washington are undergoing the most unease moment since "Ping-Pong Diplomacy" half a century ago. Five decades ago, leaders of both countries put aside their differences, tackled a variety of difficult issues, and achieved fruitful results. But many of the gains have been significantly lost. On the 50th anniversary of "Ping-Pong Diplomacy," policymakers from both countries should have courage, a grand vision and a firm determination to overcome difficulties and bring China-US relations back to the normal track. Otherwise, bilateral relations will continue to plummet.

GT: You had worked as a sports journalist. Do you think sports can still work as a vehicle to break political deadlock?

Sports is delightful. It can effectively enhance understandings between countries with diverse backgrounds, especially among the young people. Chinese are good at playing table tennis, and can help Americans to improve their skills. On the other hand, Americans tend to play basketball well. Some US players have become members of Chinese teams and played for the Chinese Basketball Association. Such exchanges between youngsters of both countries can work well to strengthen communication and ease misunderstandings. The future China-US ties will be shaped by young people.

GT: During the Cold War, "Ping-Pong Diplomacy" laid foundations to establish official ties between China and the US. But currently, many analysts believe the two countries have fallen into a new cold war. What's your take on the setback of bilateral relations?

The bilateral relations are currently experiencing grave difficulties. Such setbacks are always unpleasant. But I am not pessimistic. Based on my personal experience, the Chinese and Americans need to deepen their mutual understanding, enhance their friendship, strengthen economic exchanges, and jointly create a better future for the world. This aspiration is unstoppable to people in both countries.

GT: Former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger said in 2019 that China and US have to understand that differences are "inevitable," and it is imperative for both sides to understand that there will be a "catastrophic outcome" if the differences lead to permanent conflict. How do you think both countries can properly deal with their ideological divergences?

Differences between countries are common in international relations, which can be seen not only between China and the US, but also between China and countries in Southeast Asia, or between China and Japan. Yet, the fact is, even with divergences, countries can still live in peace. As ordinary Chinese, we do not want to see differences, or frictions settled by resorting to confrontations, or even by wars. Instead, they should be resolved by engaging in more dialogues and communications. In some fields, countries can reach a consensus, while in others, they cannot. But it does not matter. Divergences should not impair both countries to live peacefully with each other.

GT: Beijing's ties with Washington hit the lowest point during Trump's tenure. In Joe Biden's term, can both countries achieve the success that "the small ping-pong ball that moved the big Earth ahead" did? 

Present China-US ties sharply differ from the ones before the early 1970s. We have seen the close people-to-people exchanges between the two countries, and their economies heavily depend on each other. This could not be imagined before the "Ping-Pong Diplomacy." There have been many levers for the two countries to step up understanding, which are not constrained by table tennis, or by any sport event for that matter. Their exchanges in terms of economy, technology, diplomacy and culture can all work effectively to relieve their misunderstandings. Against this backdrop, it is not likely to isolate China from the US.

China-US relations were frozen for 22-years before "Ping Pong Diplomacy." Many problems and difficulties existed at that time. But Ping-Pong Diplomacy broke the ice, warming China-US ties. From "Ping-Pong Diplomacy" to the two countries establishing diplomatic ties, there had been eight years, during which many new problems were generated. But they were eventually settled or put aside. China and the US are two major countries. Such a pattern is already there, and will exist for a long time.

GT: Are you optimistic or pessimistic toward the future China-US relations?

In general, I am pessimistic about the short-term, but optimistic in the long run.

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