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Ping-pong Diplomacy: Summary, Significance, and Effects

Rujuta Patil Feb 27, 2020
Ping-pong diplomacy refers to the visit by table tennis players of the United States and China to each others' countries, which gave way to normalizing the diplomatic relations between the two nations. Here is the summary, significance, and effects of this ping-pong diplomacy.

The Ping Heard Around the World!

That was how the Time Magazine described the surprising invitation to American table tennis players from China.
Until after October 1, 1949, when Mao Zedong announced the establishment of the People's Republic of China, the 'Republic of China' (which was later relocated to Taiwan) was the officially recognized political face of the Chinese population.
The newly established republic was also claiming to represent the country at the UN, to which the U.S. had opposed. Also, during the Korean War of the early 1950s, the United States had fought for South Korea, whereas China fought for North Korea.
Political tensions between the United States and People's Republic of China (PRC) had been inherent after the second World War. The United States did not recognize the Chinese Republic until much later in the 1970s.
Considering this scenario, a sport like table tennis (ping-pong) acting as an instrument to dissolve a political tussle between two nations was definitely a milestone in the history of international relations.

Summary of Ping-pong Diplomacy

It all began when, in the year 1971, American table tennis players had gone to Nagoya, Japan, to play the World Table Tennis Championship. Here, one of the players, Glenn Cowan, missed the bus to get back to the hotel, and he was asked by a Chinese player to board their bus instead.
In the bus, the leader of the Chinese team, Zhuang Zedong, gifted Cowan a silk brocade showing the Fuchun Mountains. The next day, Glenn presented a red, white, and blue shirt in return, which had a peace emblem on it, and the words 'let it be'.
Mao Zedong, on reading about this 'gift exchange' in the newspapers, had mentioned, "Zhuang Zedong not only plays good ping-pong but knows how to conduct diplomacy as well." On this background, Mao asked the Foreign Ministry to send an invitation out to the American players to visit China.
PRC wanted its unfriendly neighbors to take notice of the possible change in alliances, which was why it initiated contact with the United States. The U.S. took it as an opportunity, too.
On April 10, 1971, the American team arrived in the PRC on an all-expense paid trip, and was welcomed with a lot of enthusiasm. They played in Beijing and Shanghai, and lived in China for a week. The Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai hosted a lavish banquet in honor of the players at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.
The next year, U.S. President Richard Nixon visited Beijing from February 21 to 28, 1972; the first U.S. President to do so. This was called 'the Journey for Peace'. The Chinese team was then invited by the U.S. team to visit the States. So, on April 12, 1972, the Chinese players came to Detroit.


It has been over forty years today since this exceptional utilization of sport was made to align diplomatic relations on the world stage. The Chinese Premier had himself said, "Never before in history has a sport been used so effectively as a tool of international diplomacy."
The importance of this diplomatic effort lies in the history of the bilateral relations of the U.S. and the PRC. Contacts between the diplomats of the two countries were subdued for a long time.
Mao Zedong had brought down the Nationalist government of General Chiang Kai-shek in 1949. The bilateral relations, since then, had totally come to a standstill. After the country came under communist rule, no American had been allowed to enter the Chinese mainland.
However, during this revival of the relations, along with the players, ten journalists were allowed to cover the team's visit, which gave an opportunity for information exchange after a long span. American citizens are known to have enthusiastically read news reports about the team spending time in China.
The American players were the first to enter China after two decades or more, that too on an invitation. These efforts of reconciliation were directed towards preventing the Soviet Union's desires in the race to emerge as the superpower. Also, PRC wished to terminate its international isolation. So, it was a mutual agreement to resurrect bilateral ties.


- On April 14, 1971, the United Stated lifted a trade embargo against China, which had been there since twenty years.

- China won for itself a legitimate position in the United Nations in the October vote. It also soon established diplomatic relations with other countries.
- In February 1972, Nixon's visit to China ended with the 'Shanghai Communique', a document laying down prospects for Sino-American relations in the future. It stated the principles of 'respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all states', people-to-people contacts, and mutually beneficial bilateral trade.
- In May 1973, 'liaison offices' were set up in the capitals of both the countries to provide a proper forum for the political talks being held.

- In January 1979, the U.S. gave formal recognition to the PRC. Nixon's visit to Beijing is known to be a crucial factor contributing to this decision.