The ping pong player missed the bus and changed the course of history. Even Mao Zedong was impressed

“Forrest Gump” is a classic. The iconic 1994 film, which won six Oscars, is packed with references to US history. The title character, played by Tom Hanks, witnesses or takes part in the important event himself. One of them was the Vietnam War, in which Gump was injured. When he recovered, he practiced playing ping-pong. He was so proficient at this that other soldiers would rather see him hitting the ball than during Neil Armstrong’s landing on the moon. He eventually joined the US team that toured China in April 1971. “We were the first Americans on Chinese soil in a million years or so. Someone said that the peace of this world was in our hands, but I did nothing, just play ping-pong” – said the title character. But his delegation did change the course of history.

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The fact that an American ping-pong player’s visit to China is featured in a film whose main theme draws on US history shows that it is not just a small part of history. Not curiosity. The two great powers developed diplomatic relations with each other thanks to a game of ping-pong. Even though America and China wanted to get closer to each other, they couldn’t do it just like that and officially. Reason? In one word – rule.

America has not maintained ties to the Chinese Communists since 1949, when one of the greatest criminals in human history came to power, as it turned out later. Mao Zedong has about 70 million people in his conscience. And that’s in peacetime. China, led by Zedong, supported the Soviet Union, while the Americans supported Taiwan and deployed their troops there. In the late 1950s, they even found themselves in border war with China, which fortunately did not happen in the end.

After the death of Joseph Stalin and the takeover of power by Nikita Khrushchev, relations between China and the Soviet Union deteriorated significantly. The two powers criticized each other, there were even incidents at the border involving soldiers from both countries. As a result, there is a desire in China to be open in international relations with Western countries. The then US president, Richard Nixon, was also a supporter of US-China rapprochement. So the question is how to establish diplomatic relations.

Initially, the authorities of the two countries exchanged letters. A secret meeting is planned in China, at which the secretary of state or the president himself will appear. All in strict secrecy – Nixon fears Taiwan will block the entire operation. Everything is done additionally through Pakistani diplomats. It became clear that formal contact would be complicated.

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At the same time, in March and April 1971, the World Table Tennis Championships were held in Nagoya, Japan. The Chinese had not participated in the tournament before (because Taiwan is a member of the Asian table tennis association), but the country’s prime minister, Zhou Enlai, believed in the power of sports diplomacy. After talks with Japan, China’s participation in the tournament became possible. So Enlai gave instructions to the athletes. They must follow the principle of “friendship first, then competition”. Under this rule, Chinese players sometimes lose matches with other countries to maintain friendly relations. In addition, the Chinese cannot exchange flags with the Americans and cannot greet them first. They can shake hands with them.

Your instructions and your life. During the championship, one of the American players, Glenn Cowan, missed his team bus due to over-training. So he got into the vehicle the Chinese was driving. There, Cowan met Zhuang Zedong, who is a three-time world champion in table tennis. Zedong talked to the American because he felt sorry for him. When Cowan got on the bus, no one moved or said anything. The Chinese remembered the instructions that had been given to them. Cowan is confused. Zedong took a chance and might change the fate of the world. In the end, China proposed that, since their country still does not have diplomatic relations, it might be necessary to hold a meeting of the Chinese-American players.

– The bus ride is 15 minutes and I hesitated for 10 minutes. I grew up with the slogan “drop American imperialism!” I asked myself, “Is it okay to have anything to do with enemy number 1?” – recalled Zhuang. He and Cowan would exchange gifts. Zhuang looked in his bag – there were some pins, a badge with Mao Zedong’s image, some silk scarves and a fan. He decided that it was not a good gift. Finally, he chose a portrait of the mountains in silk screen printing. Cowan only has a comb. He told Zhuang he had nothing to pay for. However, the next day, he handed her a T-shirt with a peace sign and the words “Let It Be”, which were the lyrics to the Beatles song. The next day, many Japanese newspapers published photos with Zhuang Zedong and Glenn Cowan.

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It was only one seemingly inconsequential event that led to the arrival of the US players, but it is perhaps the most important. Americans ask permission to come for the ping pong players. However, the decision remains unchanged, which is negative. But then Mao Zedong should have seen the news in the newspaper about the meeting between Zhaoung and Cowan and said: – This Zhuang Zedong is not only good at table tennis, but also good at foreign affairs and has political sensibilities!

Historic visit

Then things moved quickly. On April 6, 1971, China issued an official invitation to the American team to tour China. Four days later, nine American players, four activists and two escorts crossed the Hong Kong mainland bridge and became the first American delegation on Chinese soil since 1949. They were received very warmly. They also met with the Chinese prime minister, who said that the American visit opened a new chapter in the history of relations between the two countries. During the meeting, there was also a surprising exchange of views between Cowan and the prime minister. The first is a newspaper hero because he travels around China in a yellow hat and colored jeans. At one point he raised his hand and asked China’s premier what he thought of the hippie movement. Enlai was silent for a moment, but then replied, “Youth want to seek the truth, and various forms of change will inevitably emerge from this search.” When we were young, it was the same.

Let’s add that the sporting dimension of this event is missing. America is classified in 24th place in the world ranking. To get to Japan for the championship, the team had to borrow money. Fortunately, the entire trip was financed by the Chinese. Otherwise, America will not be able to afford the flight change from Japan. In an instant, they became the most important diplomats in the world. Under the principle of “friendship first, then competition”, the Chinese allowed Americans to win individual games. – I know I’m not just there to play. What is more important is that we achieved what was not achieved with the help of diplomacy – said Zheng Mizhi, one of the Chinese players.

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The consequences of visiting US tennis players are far-reaching. Hours after the players’ meeting with the prime minister, the US government lifted the trade embargo with China and introduced visa facilitation for Chinese citizens wishing to come to the US. In July 1971, US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger visited China and spoke with Prime Minister Enlai. At the time his visits were secret, but in October he made another trip, this time an official one. Richard Nixon came to China in 1972. The Chinese campaigned to explain publicly the changes in their relationship with America. This one seems necessary. As the players toured cities in China, team principal Graham Steenhoven saw a banner that read “hello America team”. Underneath a banner on the wall, there was an inscription: “Put down the Yankee bullies and their running dogs!” (dog run – in China a pejorative term for someone without rules that help or flatter the stronger and more evil, chasing a man in hopes of leftovers – ed.).

In addition, communist China was accepted at the United Nations in place of Taiwan. From where, by the way, America began to withdraw. – Never in the history of sport has it been used so effectively as a tool of international diplomacy. The Chinese learned from ping-pong diplomacy that sport and politics are inseparable. Athletes take on a big responsibility. They are our political ambassadors, said Zhou Enlai. On April 17, the US team left China.

Within a few days, a group of ping pong players changed the climate between the two powers and started the process of normalizing the relationship between them. Ping-pong diplomacy has been a huge success. So much so that it almost became a myth. This is evidenced not only by the fact that it was mentioned in “Forrest Gump”. Politicians from both countries referred to this event in the following years. In February 2002, George W. Bush mentioned this during a visit to China. America even tried to repeat this maneuver, trying to normalize relations with Cuba. This time baseball and basketball players will take part in it, but the effect is not as great as in China. The anniversary of the arrival of Americans in China is also celebrated. Exactly a year later, Chinese ping pong players came to the US. The 25th and 40th anniversary of this event are also commemorated. The celebration was attended by the heroes of the tour, as well as politicians, incl. Henry Kissinger or a member of the Richard Nixon family.

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