next remains murky. The Chinese claim that J. Rufford Harrison, the No. 2 table
tennis official in the U.S. delegation, came by their compound and, invoking
the budding friendship between Cowan and Zhuang, wondered if the U.S. might
visit the People's Republic after the worlds, as teams from Canada, Colombia,
England and Nigeria had already been invited to do. Harrison denies this; he
says that someone in the U.S. delegation might have broached the idea with the
Chinese, but then only half seriously because, as he says, "we didn't think
it was possible."
In any case the
Chinese thought the Americans were fishing for an invitation and went into an
uproar. Some pointed out the "improper" timing; the U.S. and China were
backing opposing sides in the Vietnam War, and in the past year the U.S. had
expanded the conflict by invading Cambodia. Others, still accustomed to the
reflexive denunciations of the Cultural Revolution, lashed out at Zhuang for
bringing on the situation. But others defended him, agreeing that this was the
logical result of "friendship first." An official traveling with the
delegation decided to check in with Beijing.
officials rejected the idea of an American visit. Premier Zhou Enlai, Mao's
second in command, agreed with their decision but forwarded the request to Mao.
Zhuang, who has lectured on Ping-Pong Diplomacy for years, picks up the tale:
"Mao indicated he agreed, but asked that the [U.S. request] be returned to
the foreign ministry, to be documented for future use. If that was the end of
the story, there would be no Ping-Pong Diplomacy."
A day later,
though, Mao took some briefing papers with him to bed. After taking his usual
sleeping pills, he came upon press accounts of the encounters between Zhuang
and Cowan. According to Wu Xujun, Mao's nurse, upon seeing photos of the two
exchanging gifts, he was moved to exclaim, "My Lord, Zhuang!" He told
Wu that the American team should indeed be invited.
remained: Mao had ordered Wu to disregard any directive he issued after he had
taken sleeping pills. Seeing her hesitation, he insisted that his instructions
should nonetheless be carried out. After Wu pressed him again to reassure her
that he had really changed his mind, Mao kept himself awake until Wu returned
with word that she had telephoned the foreign ministry with his order to
formally invite the U.S. team. "That was on April 7, the last day of the
championships," says Zhuang. "Everything was just on time. "
morning, Harrison was hailing a cab in front of the U.S. team's hotel. A taxi
stopped, and two Chinese men stepped out: Song Zhong, leader of the Chinese
delegation, and his interpreter. At an organizational meeting at the start of
the tournament, Harrison had tried to introduce himself, only to watch Song
turn his head in rebuff. Now Song was beckoning Harrison into the lobby, where
he asked how the U.S. delegation might react to an invitation.
Two days later,
at the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo, an officer used a black marker to strike out the
travel restrictions in the delegation's passports. Harrison and U.S. Table
Tennis Association president Graham Steenhoven asked William Cunningham, the
China-watcher in the embassy, whether they should expect to be humiliated or
threatened. "I told them that this represented an enormous breakthrough in
U.S.-China relations," Cunningham recalls. "I said they wouldn't have
invited you if they intended to humiliate you."
Mao told Wu he
had invited the American team in recognition of the inevitable: "The
friendly Sino-American relationship is definitely the trend. Look, the
encounter between Zhuang Zedong and Cowan is so natural. They bear no grudge
against each other. Even though there was some hesitation, this was caused by
COWAN AND Zhuang
had forged their friendship in a diplomatic environment much more favorable
than anyone without security clearance in Washington or Beijing could have
known. Over the preceding months Zhou Enlai had received a visit from Koji
Goto, president of the Japan Table Tennis Association, which would be hosting
the worlds. Goto appealed to Zhou to end China's absence from international
competition and send a team to Nagoya. On March 15, acting on Zhou's
recommendation, Mao approved China's participation.
In the meantime
the geopolitical stars had aligned. In 1969 China had suffered hundreds of
casualties in border clashes with the Soviet Union, and the Chinese, fearing
the massive buildup of Soviet troops along a 2,700-mile stretch to their north,
saw the value of the U.S. as a counterweight. Beijing was also eager to join
the U.N., expand its influence and push out its noncommunist rivals on Taiwan.
Finally, Mao wanted to tamp down the excesses of the Cultural Revolution and
edge his country into the community of nations.