Saturday, 23 June 2012


'Sightings': the term used by Prof. Jonathan D. Spence to describe formative encounters of China by Westerners.

Everyone has heard of the phrase "ping-pong diplomacy." And most people know that it originally referred to sporting exchanges between the Chinese and U.S. table-tennis teams that facilitated the re-opening of official relations between the two states after two decades.

But what you may not know (and what I had not realised until I came to research it) is the variety of life-lessons the sportsmen from both countries took from their encounter - and the surprisingly familiar arguments it provoked about the politicisation of sport, which is meant to stand apart from politics, and be pursued for its own sake.

I decided to revisit the initial encounter between the sports teams that preceded the Mao-Nixon meeting, because I think it can help us to make sense of contemporary debates about whether sport and politics should be 'mixed' or kept 'separate.'

As a tool in the construction of modern nation-states sport is inherently political, but it has always had the potential to transcend narrow nationalisms, because it provides an arena in which countries can unambiguously lose one contest yet win another; when we watch international sporting events, we may root for the home team, but we are also conscious of the contingency of national identity, prestige, virtue, and so on. And I think that a brief history of ping-pong in Chinese politics illustrates this rather well.


Soon after the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, Mao Zedong made ping pong the new national sport (guoqiu). He chose ping pong because it seemed like a sport China - a poor, densely-populated nation - would be able to win against other countries, and become a unified nation in the process.

It was also a political choice: it was not a terribly popular sport throughout most of Europe, and the Nationalist government that had fled to Taiwan was not a member of the sport's international governing body, so when the PRC joined in 1953 it did not provoke the same struggles for diplomatic recognition that hung over the International Olympic Committee (IOC) through the 1950s.

The CPC set up a vast network of talent scouts were dispatched to identify potential champions. In doing this, Mao was following in the tradition of his predecessors, who had also tried to use sport for state-building (and who, in their turn, followed the model set by other modern nation-states like the U.S., which promoted sports as a means of improving the fitness of its military recruits).

At the turn of the 19th-Century, China was dubbed the "sick man of Asia" in an article by an famous Chinese intellectual. In response the Qing government (1644-1911), the last imperial dynasty to rule China, imported military exercises, including gymnastics, from Germany and Sweden, as part of a broader "self-strengthening" movement (ziqiang); it was designed to re-connect the government with the masses through greater efficiency and selective modernisation.

Later, in 1919, the Nationalist government issued a decree entitled The Work Plan for the Promotion of Sport. It stressed that sporting success was vital to the vitality of the new Republic:

"Every country focuses on the promotion of the nation's power through in China has largely been neglected. The present situation shows that sport in China is falling far behind other countries...the government should spare no effort to promote sport...otherwise we cannot survive in international competition."

Governments have often popularised certain sports in the hope of building a shared national identity over and above deep social divisions, related to class, race or religion. Thus the Communists made ping pong the national sport to soften some (but not all) of the class distinctions, and to put identification with the nation before traditional bonds of kinship. It had come to China from Europe in 1901 and was starting to become popular in urban areas in the 1930s.

China joined the International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) in the last years of Europe's dominance of the sport. In 1956-7, China's team ranked highly, and came third in the women's singles. Then, in 1959, the table tennis player Rong Guotan made history as the first Chinese sportsman to win a world championship. Rong is the central figure in the photograph below.

It was an occasion for jubilation in China. In 1917 Mao wrote one his first articles on the importance of sport for nation-building. Four decades later he demonstrated his savvy awareness of 'soft power', describing Rong's powerful backhand and forehand drives as constituting a "spiritual nuclear weapon".

Here is some footage of Rong at the 1959 championships (starts at 06:25).

Another Chinese player, Zhuang Zedong, won the following three championships, from 1961-5 (there is footage of his play in the video above at 08:40).

But this growth spurt in the international sporting arena was cut short; China did not send a team to the next World Championships in 1967, because by then the Cultural Revolution was underway, during which the country was turned entirely inwards on itself, and the routines of daily life were often violent and unpredictable.

Zhuang Zedong
In 1968, two important things happened:  North Vietnam launched the 'Tet Offensive' and thereby increased the domestic pressure on President Nixon to withdraw U.S. forces from the country, for which he needed China's co-operation; and political instability reached China's sporting elite, when Red Guards put three members of the national table tennis team under house arrest.

At the outset of the Cultural Revolution, professional sportsmen were denounced as "sprouts of revisionism." The danger for the CPC of using sport as a political tool was that it had to be kept in check; it was a blunt tool and any ambiguity, such as Rong's having spent most of his life outside of China, was a worrying liability, and so he stood accused of being a foreign spy. So long as China had equally talented but more politically-correct players, Rong was expendable to the regime. Tragically, he and his two teammates committed suicide after being tortured in detention.

Perhaps Mao had allowed the political tumult to reach so high up in the sporting establishment as a kind of warning to sportspeople to be faultless "icons of revolutionary virtue." Or perhaps this had been an example of the Red Guards going too far on their own initiative. Either way, it sent a clear signal to Rong's colleagues to obey orders from the top - the only problem being that the orders themselves were far from clear.


Although they stayed at home, the Chinese table tennis team resumed training in 1969. Zhuang was the star player. He was a politically reliable former army man, with a penchant for speaking in slogans. For instance: "to play table tennis is a revolutionary endeavour and serves the interest of the people; it is not for fun or for the opportunity to show off."

Yet even Zhuang found himself implicated in Cultural Revolution-era paranoia; he was detained along with other players for alledgedly allying themselves too closely with Mao's rival, Liu Shaoqi.

A sign greeting the visiting U.S. team to the PRC in 1971
It is easy to look back at public figures who talked like this as if they were all either cranks or had all been brainwashed, but in fact the fear that China might be attacked from overseas was very prevalent at the time, and reached all the way to the leadership. Since the Sino-Soviet split had opened up at the beginning of the decade, relations between the PRC and the USSR had rapidly deteriorated, culminating in clashes between their border troops on the Ussuri River in 1969.

Fear of attack from the Soviet Union dominated Mao's geopolitical thinking at the start of the 1970s. Fear of electoral defeat without a semi-orderly exit from Vietnam gripped Nixon. Separately, the two men came to see each other as the 'lesser evil' in the triangular diplomacy of the Cold War, and they recognised that a limited friendship of convenience could be mutually beneficial.

Unfortunately neither country had a way to communicate its sincere interest to the other. From 1954-72 the U.S. and PRC had no official relations with one another, and communicated only via their embassies in Poland and Switzerland. When they started sending signals that they were seeking better relations, the long period of separation meant that their hints got lost in translation - they lacked a detailed understanding of the other's domestic politics, and thus a shared language in which to frankly conduct their diplomacy.

For example, in 1970 Mao invited the veteran American journalist Edgar Snow for one last meeting with him. It was publicised heavily in the Chinese press as an expression of authentic international friendship, and Mao had the photo below put on the front page of the People's Daily in the hope that the Nixon administration would take the hint and get in touch.

The only problem was that Edgar Snow had no credibility in Washington because of his Communist sympathies, so its significance went unrecognised.

As an indication of just how isolated China had been in the years before ping-pong diplomacy, here is a clip of an American news broadcast anticipating Nixon's visit in 1972. The anchorman draws comparisons between the U.S. and PRC, but the overriding impression is that he is describing a newly-discovered planet.

Meanwhile, the Chinese ping pong team were preparing to re-emerge at the 31st World Championships in Nagoya, Japan. As the date of the competition drew nearer, politics intervened again - North Korea and the exiled head of state in Cambodia both requested that China withdraw in protest against Japan's membership of the Asian Table Tennis Federation, a body that recognised the Republic of China on Taiwan as the legitimate government of the whole of China. Zhou Enlai had already seen the potential for the contest to be a springboard for improved ties with the U.S., so he asked the Chinese team for their opinion - to his disappointment, they supported the idea of a boycott.

On Zhou's advice, Mao sent the team to Japan in March 1971 with strict instructions governing how they conducted their interaction with the Americans: they could shake hands, although it was discouraged, but they were forbidden from initiating conversation, exchanging flags or posing for photographs with American players. The competition was "a political battle."

Yet they were officially dispatched under the banner of "friendship first, competition second." This apparent contradiction illustrates the nervousness of the PRC leadership about making tentative gestures to which it could not predict the American response, and their fear of losing face in a very public arena.

It took a spontaneous chance encounter to finally break the ice. A 19-year old American player named Glenn Cowan was leaving the training ground for the stadium one morning and inadvertently jumped aboard the bus reserved for the Chinese team. He stood at the front in awkward silence until at last he informed the curious passengers via a translator that his long hair and baggy jeans were not so unusual in his home country. Zhuang Zedong, who was sitting at the back, replied that they should feel free to converse as friends, since the meeting between Mao and Edgar Snow had symbolised that this was China's policy.

Here is Zhuang remembering that first encounter, and how he had been motivated by conflicting orders from on above: "In a changing world, only the clairvoyance of great men could grasp the seemingly ordinary but essential moment."

The meeting made headlines in the Japanese newspapers the next day. Zhuang and Cowan were photographed shaking hands and they exchanged gifts of a brocaded tapestry from Huangzhou and a 'Let It Be' t-shirt. When he returned to China to face criticism for his behaviour, Zhuang said, "Chairman Mao told us we should differentiate between American policymakers and common people. What was wrong with my action?" Nevertheless the Chinese government decided to reject a proposal from the manager of the U.S. team for a bilateral sporting exchange.

It was Mao's impulsive reaction to the photograph of Zhuang and Cowan that would be the turning-point. Mao was lying in bed, signing-off on decisions taken elsewhere in the bureaucratic machine when he saw the pictures and was suddenly inspired. According to Jung Chang's biography of Mao, "his eyes lit up and he called Zhuang 'a good diplomat.'" In On China, Dr. Kissinger conveys the scene:

"Mao lay "slumped over the table" in a sleeping-pill-induced haze. Suddenly he croaked to his nurse, telling her to phone the Foreign Ministry - "to invite the American team to visit China." The nurse recalled asking him, "Does your word count after taking sleeping pills?" Mao replied, "Yes, it counts, every word counts. Act promptly, or it will be too late!""


In 1971, the 15-member U.S. table tennis team became the first non-communist American delegation to visit China since 1949. Premier Zhou provided a packed itinerary for the players: they visited the Great Wall, watched ballet and a revolutionary opera staged by Mao's wife, and learned that many Chinese people were unaware a man had landed on the moon. They travelled by train from Canton, to Peking, to Shanghai.

They also played two exhibition matches to packed stadium audiences - it was dubbed "the ping heard around the world."

The superiority of the Chinese team gave them the diplomatic option of going easy on the Americans, of which, as the retrospective in the video below shows, the Americans were well aware at the time.

It was a momentous occasion, signified by their meeting with Zhou, who stressed that the visit was intended to open up improved relations between the two countries; as he later put it, "the small ball set the big one, the earth, in motion."

Of the American players, Cowan arguably attracted the most attention wherever he went in China because of the contrast between his free-flowing hippy fashion and the drab 'Mao suits' which were ubiquitous at that time. The way that Cowan described the trip afterwards suggests a certain degree of romanticising the poverty he would have witnessed, and the bonds of interdependency forged by living in such a large population: "I loved the Chinese", he said, "Where else, man, would you see a child of three carrying a child of two in his arms?"

Here he is, effortlessly drawing attention (some of it contrived, as he spent much of the trip trying to get pictures that would get him on the cover of Life magazine):

When he was asked by Cowan for his thoughts on the hippie movement, Zhou replied that it was not political enough: "Young people ought to try different things. But they should try to find something in common with the majority." The following day's New York Times headline read: ZHOU, 73, AND 'TEAM HIPPIE' HIT IT OFF. A year later, Cowan won the accolade of Rolling Stone's 'Groupie of the Year.'

The White House took the hint, and immediately pushed through key changes to their foreign policy as regards China, the most significant being the ending of a 21-year old trade embargo dating from the Korean War. Dr. Kissinger recognised that ping pong had provided the perfect cover for the Chinese to publicly engage the Americans without the risk of losing face if their entreaties were rebuffed:

"It committed China publicly to the course heretofore confined to the most secret diplomatic channels. In that sense, it was reassurance. But it was also a warning of what course China could pursue were the secret communications thwarted. Beijing could then undertake a public campaign - what would today be called "people-to-people diplomacy" - and appeal to the growing protest movement in American society on the basis of another "lost chance for peace."

The hippie was followed by the ultimate anti-hippie just ten months later, when Nixon made his historic visit to the PRC. It was the beginning of rapprochement between the two powers, and the first step towards the full restoration of official relations in 1979. Here is a clip from the PBS Cold War series on the meeting.

Later that year the Chinese table tennis team visited the U.S. to play some return games. They were warmly greeted, notwithstanding a small group of Cold Warriors and Christian activists who protested the visit - and were booed into submission by the rest of the audience.

In his role as head of the delegation, Zhuang performed card tricks for captive audiences and dispensed such pearls of wisdom as: "Though Ping-Pong is a highly competitive sport, the is no real victory or defeat. There is always both. Just as there is no life without death, There is no death without life. The whole world is unified like this." On his return to China he was appointed Minister of Physical Culture.

After Mao's death in 1976 Zhuang lost his government post and was made to work as a street-sweeper. He was publicly denounced by the government for "wearing a Swiss-made watch." During four years in solitary confinement, he, like his teammates a decade earlier, attempted suicide. He was later rehabilitated, however, and divides his time between professional coaching and public speaking.

The story of Cowan's return to America does not have such a happy ending. He was diagnosed with manic depression, developed a drug problem and became obsessed with Mao and Mick Jagger. "I do escape in drugs", he said, "They give me a world that fits my needs." What he seemed to need was a worldview that matched the purity and innocence he had perceived in China: "life is simple", he had told his teammates as their train passed field after field of peasants working the land. He went on to work as a teacher and sold shoes, spending many of his later years living on the streets.


What wider lessons can we draw from this episode? It would seem to suggest that international sporting events can be used to make a political argument that brings about a desired effect.

But I think it also shows the limited conditions under which sport can be used as an instrument of politics. The message was basic - it was not so much about the content of an ongoing dialogue as it was an invitation to resume dialogue. If the table-tennis championships had been leveraged to influence specific policies, it might not have worked so well because interest groups would have piled in and blurred the signals ; instead, such contentious matters could be left to the Mao-Nixon summit.

Moreover it was seen by the Chinese as a low-risk manoeuvre because if the Americans had rejected their invitation, they would have seemed petty and childish. And yet it only really worked in this way - the product of a schizophrenic political campaign and sheer luck - because of the extreme level of political interference in the Chinese team. In the long-run, this degree of manipulation devalues sport as an instrument of internationalism in a more subtle way - by depriving spectators from all countries of the chance to watch a fair test of ability amongst all of their teams, an experience that breeds a kind of patriotism that George Orwell distinguished from narrower forms of nationalism.

In his Notes on Nationalism Orwell wrote that patriotism is the desire that your team will win, whereas nationalism is an automatic presumption of superiority. The former, whilst it reflects the nation-building potential of sport, is more contingent and fragile than the latter, and can incorporate a willingness to learn from the tactics of other countries; China reversed its decline in the table tennis rankings in the 1980s by adopting the winning tactics of breakthrough teams from Sweden and South Korea, but it was only able to do so because post-Mao political reforms had abolished his rigid prescriptions for how all table-tennis players ought to be trained.

As the Olympics showed in 2008, the impulse to politicise sport remains. I hope to have shown that ping pong diplomacy is actually more of a cautionary tale than is commonly supposed.