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ALEXANDER WOLFF
June 16, 2008
Ping-Pong Diplomacy made the Beijing Games possible—but without two unlikely heroes, the great table tennis summit might never have occurred
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June 16, 2008

Opening Volley

Ping-Pong Diplomacy made the Beijing Games possible—but without two unlikely heroes, the great table tennis summit might never have occurred

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What happened 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.

At first, 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.

One hurdle 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. "

Later that 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 history."

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.

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