Skip to Initiative for U.S.-China Dialogue on Global Issues Full Site Menu Skip to main content
April 24, 2017

Responding To: U.S.-China: Addressing and Building Strategic Trust

Ping-Pong Diplomacy: A Shift in Rhetoric

Caleb Huffman

The United States and China do not need to search far for an example of two countries that overcame severe trust difficulties to alter the international community for the better. In July 1971, U.S. National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger met with Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai after arriving in Beijing from a secret trip to Pakistan. By 1979, relations between the two countries were normalized with the release of the Joint Communiqué on the Establishment of Diplomatic Relations. After 20 years of frozen diplomatic relations, trust was built—altering the trajectory of the global order.

With this perspective, overcoming the “trust deficit” observed today between these two great countries appears incredibly manageable. Current stewards of U.S.-China relations seeking to build trust would be wise to look back at one of the strategies used at the beginning of the contemporary relationship: ping-pong.

At the 31st World Table Tennis Championships in 1971 in Japan, championship participant Glenn Cowan jumped on a team bus for a ride to the gymnasium. To his surprise, he had chosen the wrong bus, Team China instead of Team USA. Cowan, an American, quickly turned in an attempt to exit, but the doors swiveled shut. The trip began in awkward silence. After about 10 minutes, Zhuang Zedong, Chinese player and three times international champion of the men's singles championship, approached the American with a gift and a word, “...[T]he American people were always Chinese people’s friends.” Glenn Cowan, the American, broke out in a smile. After a series of events that unfolded resulting from the ping-pong encounter, in April 1971 the American ping-pong team visited China, bringing with them the first American delegation of journalists to enter China since 1949, paving the way for normalizing relations.

It’s a nice story. But, in regards to diplomatic action, the ping-pong meeting in Beijing was not a causal factor in influencing Washington and Beijing to improve relations, as so often framed in secondary history classes across America. Communication had already begun between the two countries prior to the event. It was a publicity stunt aimed more at each country’s citizenry by their leaders, indicating to the people that a shift was coming, hence the reporters attending on the trip. Images of Chinese and American citizens playing a friendly game of ping-pong dominated the news, signaling McCarthyism red talk of the United States and anti-U.S. rhetoric of China needed to abate. A new global order was in the making.

Mao and Nixon had their strategic reasons to improve relations and were ready to move forward. The people they served, however, weren’t so sure. Ping-pong diplomacy performed a great service to U.S-China relations, not by causing action but by symbolizing to the people of China and the United States their potential as global partners.

However, beneficial rhetoric between policymakers and the populace is only a prerequisite, not sufficient, factor for increased trust between countries. Institutional action matters. The reason ping-pong diplomacy worked was because both Nixon and Mao were looking for an opportunity to begin reestablishing relations—in the context of impacting their relationships with the USSR. Action taken was dependent upon the constraints, real or perceived, of each country’s leaders. Put simply, it is a given that leaders need to be willing to fix the trust deficit. The problem is: it’s not possible to tell when such leaders will be in place. Day-to-day news, especially in the current political climate, may appear to offer little hope. Nixon and Mao appeared foes—until they weren’t. Positive messages indicating the potential of a trust-filled China-U.S. relationship is like kindling waiting to be lit. Its inability to light itself does not remove its own necessity for the fire’s successful ignition.

The United States and China need more ping-pong diplomacy today. American’s perception of China took a huge hit after the Tiananmen Square Massacre of 1989 with similar, but opposite in direction, effects of ping-pong diplomacy. More recently, the 2016 presidential election witnessed the scapegoating of China for the ills of globalization, a politically convenient and perniciously powerful rhetoric among the populace. The governments of both countries need to turn down the heated rhetoric perpetuated purely for domestic gain. Instead, rhetoric needs to paint a trust-filled relationship, whether it’s true currently or not. Zhuang Zedong’s claim that the Chinese and American people had always been friends was not meant to be a factual statement, but an aspirant one. The lessons of ping-pong diplomacy highlight a method for decreasing the trust deficit between two of the world’s most influential states, allowing for a more prosperous globe.

Caleb Huffman is pursuing an undergraduate double major in political science and communication at the University of Washington.

Other Responses