It began, as good stories sometimes do, with a man missing his bus.
American player Glenn Cowan had been practising for the 1971 World Table Tennis Championships in Nagoya, Japan when his team bus left the arena without him. Accounts of what happened next vary. Cowan was either waved over to the waiting Chinese bus by one of the players or mistakenly boarded it himself. Either way, this simple act set in motion a chain of events which culminated in the thawing of more than two decades long frosty Sino-US relations.
The two countries had been at diplomatic loggerheads since the formation of the communist People’s Republic of China under Mao Zedong in 1949. Communist is a dirty word in the United States today; it was an allegation that could land one in jail back in the 40s and 50s. Conversely, ‘commie-bashing’ and ‘red-scare’ fear mongering could launch nobodies into political stardom. Richard Nixon, the American president at the time of Cowan’s fateful bus ride, had built his entire career on anti-Communist rhetoric.
Things were not too different across the world. Through the 50s and well into the 60s, China was awash in anti-capitalist and anti-US propaganda. Capitalism was the enemy; the US its most depraved face. Posters, speeches, newspaper articles, art — anything that could be put in service of the communist cause was exploited to the hilt.
Table-tennis, one of the few ways through which China engaged with the wider world, was part of this arsenal. Mao was supposed to have motivated his players by telling them, “Regard a ping-pong ball as the head of your capitalist enemy. Hit it with your socialist bat, and you have won the point for the fatherland.”
However, by the mid to late 60s, developments elsewhere had forced both sides to soften their stances. Nixon was hemorrhaging goodwill at home and abroad, thanks to American misadventures in Vietnam. He also realised the folly of not having any relations with a major Asian power and the most populous country in the world. China, meanwhile, was spooked by Soviet antagonism on its northern border — the comity of communist nations had by now unravelled into hostility and mutual distrust. Mao realised he needed allies — or at least, fewer enemies.
Thus when Cowan stepped onto that Chinese bus, the prevailing political atmosphere was uncertain — two previously implacable enemies trying to figure out a route to rapprochement. This chance encounter opened up that route. Even as most Chinese players sat in silent shock at the sight of an American in their midst, Zuang Zedong (no relation), a three-time world champion, approached the American.
“When I started towards him, my team mates said what are you doing? Don’t go! Don’t make any trouble! Don’t talk to him!” he told Reuters in 2007. Decades of indoctrination had done a good job.
Not only did Zedong ignore this advice, he rummaged around his bag to gift Cowan a silk painting of the Huangshan Mountains. By the end of the 15-minute journey, the two were chatting away through an interpreter with Zedong telling his counterpart, “Although the US government is unfriendly to China, the American people are friends of the Chinese. I give you this (the painting) to mark the friendship from Chinese people to the American people.”
Cowan, who only had a comb on him at the time, would later return the favour by gifting Zhuang a t-shirt with a peace symbol and the words ‘LET IT BE’ – referring to a popular Beatles song from the time.
Photos of Zhuang and Cowan talking and laughing were splashed across Japanese newspapers the following day. The world was now ready for Sino-US détente.
Mao came across this news a few days later, “slumped over the table in a sleeping-pill induced haze” as Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s National Security Advisor at the time, puts it in his book On China, and instructed his nurse to call the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs to extend an invite to the US table tennis team to Beijing. An earlier request by the US team to come to China had been denied, and Mao was now under the influence, so to speak, so the nurse checked again. Mao reissued the same instruction.
Four days later, on April 10, 1971, Cowan and his team became the first Americans to set foot in China in decades, for a hastily organised tournament. Diplomacy, so often glacial, now showed its fleetness of foot. As Cowan and Co. enjoyed Chinese hospitality which culminated in a meeting with Premier Zhou Enlai in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People, Nixon eased trade and travel embargos between the two countries.
The governments also arranged for Kissinger to make a secret trip to Beijing in July that year to lay the groundwork for a formal visit by Nixon himself in early 1972. He was the first sitting American President to visit China — and a rapid normalisation of ties ensued. Today, the US is China’s leading export market.
Even though trade is why Sino-US relations have deteriorated again since President Trump took office, they’re a far cry from the unremitting hostility of the 60s. Ping pong had changed the face of geopolitics on the planet. Or as Mao put it, “A little ball moved the big ball.”
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