Late last week, the first lady of the United States, Michelle Obama journeyed to the People’s Republic of China. The trip was a family vacation of sorts. She had her mother and her daughters in tow. While not a formal diplomatic mission, any sojourn by the first family carries those obligations with it. So too was it with Obama’s trip to the PRC.
Stations of her visit have included sight-seeing to the Great Wall and Forbidden City, a perfunctory soft jab at the PRC’s notoriously closed public information channels, jumping rope with students and a brief game of ping pong.
It’s this last item, the ping pong that bears special note. Throughout the modern era of diplomatic relations with China, the game of ping pong — or more formally “table tennis” — has been a recurrent vehicle for warming bilateral talks.
This process began on April 6, 1971 while the U.S. Table Tennis team was in Japan for the 31st World Table Tennis Championship. During the competition, the U.S. team received a surprise invitation from the Chinese government. Representing the first invitation for Americans to visit China since the Communist Revolution in 1949, U. S. athletes were offered an all-expense paid trip to play ping pong in the PRC.
Time Magazine dubbed it “The ping heard around the world.” Similarly the Los Angeles Times wrote that the group did “what the Paris peace talks … and the State Department couldn’t do in decades — unthaw one-quarter of the world.”
On April 10, nine players, four coaches and two spouses ventured from Hong Kong to the Chinese mainland, inaugurating the era of “Ping Pong diplomacy.” Along with the team, ten journalists, five of whom were American, were invited to cover the visit. This also represented an important milestone. It was the first break in the Chinese information blockade since 1949.
For the next week an enthralled American public watched as the Chinese ping pong powerhouse wiped the proverbial floor with the U. S. team. Between these lopsided matches, the team toured much as Obama did last week. toured the Great Wall and Summer Palace, chatted with Chinese students and factory workers, and attended the Canton Ballet.
While predicated on a ping pong exhibition, this week was a diplomatic triumph well beyond the confines of any sports arena. When Chinese Premier Chou En-lai received the American guests at a banquet in the Great Hall of the People he spoke to this auspiciousness of the visit, “You have opened a new chapter in the relations of the American and Chinese people. I am confident that this beginning again of our friendship will certainly meet with majority support of our two peoples.”
With a bit of humor he also extended an invitation for more American journalists to visit his nation, provided they do not “all come at one time.”
On the same day April 20, the U. S. announced plans to remove a 20-year embargo on trade with China. Although strictly along back channels, President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger used the foothold to expand diplomatic relations. First, Kissinger made a then-secret visit to China in July. Which in turn, paved the way for Nixon’s landmark diplomatic mission the following year.
For more than forty years, ping pong has, a Time reporters noted, “been an apt metaphor” for Sino-American relations. With a pace as varied as the game itself, presidents and their proxies have used the humble game a diplomatic touchstone ever since.