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Great Power Competitions

How ping-pong redirected diplomacy between the United States and China

On a grey October day on New York’s Roosevelt Island, a crowd gathered to honor the life and legacy of a man whose ping-pong skill once helped send geopolitics spinning in a new direction. George “The Chief” Braithwaite, who spent his childhood in Guyana and adulthood in New York City, was by all accounts an inspiring man—warm, athletic, and generous with his affection. He spent his adult life representing both the United States and his birth country in international competition and coaching younger generations of players. In October 2020, he succumbed to Covid at the age of eighty-six. Now, a year later, the American Youth Table Tennis Organization was hosting a commemoration in his honor, attended by a mixed crowd of diplomats, professional table tennis players, and New York Times crossword editor Will Shortz. Choreographer Alan Good honored Braithwaite’s memory with a modern dance number scored by the percussive sound of ping-pong balls on paddles.

Braithwaite was one of nine young athletes who in April 1971 became the first American delegation to enter China since the 1949 revolution. As Guyanese Ambassador to the U.N. Rudolph Michael Ten-Pow said at Braithwaite’s commemoration: “This was a man who played [table] tennis for the prime minister of China, Zhou Enlai [and] Chairman Mao Zedong.” The breakthrough, Ten-Pow said, “helped lead to the end of the isolation of China. And in fact, some say, it changed the course of history.”

The events were set in motion when the U.S. national table tennis team visited Nagoya, Japan for the 1971 World Table Tennis Championships. The U.S. players had a middling performance—the men’s team finished twenty-eighth and the American women finished twenty-first—but at one point Braithwaite’s teammate Glenn Cowan hopped onto the Chinese team’s bus, and despite Mao’s instructions that his nation’s team avoid the Americans, found his handshake met by Chinese star Zhuang Zedong. That spontaneous exchange would provide a diplomatic opportunity: Mao invited the American team to tour China for a week, all expenses paid, opening the way to a thaw in Sino-American relations after two decades of standoff and proxy wars in East Asia.

The journey would capture the American and Chinese publics’ imagination; Time magazine ran a cover feature on the so-called Ping-Pong Diplomacy, offering a first peek behind the “Bamboo Curtain.” The Americans presented a sweet if naïve façade to their hosts: one teenaged player, Time reported, “embarrassed his teammates by declaring that ‘Mao Tse-tung is the greatest moral and intellectual leader in the world,’” before getting sick and retreating to his quarters. Cowan, whose long hair made him a fan favorite in the team’s exhibitions, asked Chinese premier Zhou Enlai what he thought of the American hippie movement—Zhou offered qualified support. Connie Sweeris marveled at the many-course meals: “We had food you wouldn’t believe. Shark-fin soup, century-old eggs, and for dessert soup with a whole chicken floating in it. Actually, I got used to it.”

Ping-pong offers a ready metaphor for international relations, suggesting a back-and-forth of countries parrying one another’s feints and trying for their own advantage in return.

Braithwaite, the only Black player on the team, told the Washington Post that he found the Chinese fans especially supportive, surmising that they “probably identified me with themselves—the struggle to liberate them. There was no indication as to racial differences. I was treated just as well as the others.” As Time wrote, “All kinds of heady possibilities and difficult questions were suddenly in the air. What role would China assume as a no longer isolated power? Would the Russians get mad? Could the United States start playing Peking against Moscow?”

Many of the players involved would continue playing high-level ping-pong. Braithwaite played for decades in the table tennis club atop the United Nations with diplomats and staff from around New York and the world; that club hosted a round of friendly matches in 1997 to honor the twenty-fifth anniversary of Nixon’s first trip to China. Speaking with me at the commemoration, Ten-Pow, the Guyanese diplomat and a former president of the U.N. table tennis club, mused on the connection: “Sometimes, in order to create the right atmosphere, you need to have things like a game of ping-pong between two countries that are not on friendly terms with each other. And that breaks the ice. You can imagine two leaders, Nixon and Mao Zedong, sitting, chatting, having just watched a match between representatives from the two countries, how that leads to the possibility of some small talk. Which is extremely important in diplomacy.”

Ping-pong offers a ready metaphor for international relations, suggesting a back-and-forth of countries parrying one another’s feints and trying for their own advantage in return. Much has changed in the fifty years since some small talk between Americans and Chinese made international headlines; it takes effort to recall how frozen U.S.-China relations were toward the end of the Cold War, when American passports were emblazoned with a disclaimer that they were “not valid for travel to or in communist controlled portions of China,” among a host of other countries. President Nixon, whose anticommunist bona fides were well-established, made it a priority of his administration to explore possibilities of engaging with Maoist China: he sent Henry Kissinger on a secret trip to China in the summer of 1971, which prepared the way for Nixon’s trip in February of 1972. Part of the rationale was to take advantage of the tensions between China and the Soviet Union. Another part was hinted at by a Monsanto spokesman quoted in the business round-up of the Time issue following the Americans’ trip, considering China’s then-740 million citizens: “You just can’t look at a market of that size,” he said, “and not believe that eventually a lot of goods are going to be sold there. Just one aspirin tablet a day to each of those guys—and that’s a lot of aspirin.” The bullishness of the American government at the prospect of China’s opening is inseparable from the opportunities it provided for American capital.

The rules of the international economy were changing. The global monetary regime constructed in the aftermath of World War II, in which the value of the U.S. dollar was affixed to the value of gold and foreign currencies to the U.S. dollar, had allowed states a good deal of control over capital inflows and outflows. Within months of the ping-pong players’ first visit, however, the Nixon administration would abdicate the Bretton Woods system underpinning this monetary order, enabling capital to move across borders more freely and ushering in the era of globalization to come. In 1978, two years after Mao’s death, president Deng Xiaoping began slowly to liberalize the Chinese economy, beginning with special geographic zones to experiment with market-based approaches to economic planning. The “socialism with Chinese characteristics” that emerged would enable decades of explosive growth, lifting hundreds of millions out of poverty and reasserting China as one of two major poles of the global economy.

A Monsanto spokesman saw China’s potential in 1971: “You just can’t look at a market of that size,” he said, “and not believe that eventually a lot of goods are going to be sold there.”

China’s strategy allowed it to “construct a form of state-manipulated market economy that delivered spectacular economic growth (averaging close to 10 percent per year) and rising standards of living for a significant portion of the population for more than twenty years,” writes geographer David Harvey in 2005’s A Brief History of Neoliberalism. That growth has continued, but “the reforms also led to environmental degradation, social inequality, and eventually something that looks uncomfortably like the reconstitution of capitalist class power.” Despite China’s one-party government and state control of key sectors of the economy, its liberalized economy has produced some of the same ills as in its once and future rival across the Pacific. Still, throughout the gradually expanding market reforms, the state maintained control over the “commanding heights” of the economy, as Isabella Weber writes in this year’s How China Avoided Shock Therapy

In the face of this dizzying growth, the U.S. foreign policy establishment has been discussing a reorientation toward “great power competition” with China; hawkish Americans mull a “new Cold War” against the rising power. Earlier this month, China seemingly tested a nuclear-capable missile that, by traveling through space before reentering earth’s atmosphere, could bypass American detection systems; alarmed American military officials called it close to a “Sputnik moment,” recalling the space race of the Cold War. In summer of this year, the Senate passed the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act, deeming China “the greatest geopolitical and geo-economic challenge for United States foreign policy”; the House is currently sitting on a companion bill that would make the consequently targeted investments in manufacturing and technology into law. Despite some amount of ideological convergence over the last fifty years, the optimism of those days in 1971, when the Chinese star player Zhuang Zedong reportedly spoke to his American counterparts about the friendship between the Chinese and American people, has curdled into something uglier.

Some of the attendees on Roosevelt Island were able to recall that heady era. Peizhen Shao, who played on the Chinese women’s team against the Americans in 1971, attended Braithwaite’s commemoration. She confirmed that the Chinese team—then the best in the world—had, as a show of friendship, let their American opponents win a number of their exhibition matches. Shao bemoaned the ebbing of a “friendship first” approach to ping-pong, which for her tracked a more general social shift over the last fifty years. Noting the rising tensions between her home country and adopted nation—where she has thrice coached the Special Olympics table tennis team—she advocated a sort of democratized approach to de-escalation: “I was just always thinking, you know, instead of you always complaining, you just start of doing yourself. I hope that USTTA can do something to bring back people like fifty years ago. And you never know, you can change a little bit this relationship again, and make it better now.”

Another of the day’s attendees had tried to do something like that—but in North Korea. Wally Green, now on hiatus from professional table tennis, told me about his own attempt at ping-pong diplomacy in 2015. The “Dennis Rodman of Ping-Pong,” Green described the difficulties of traveling solo from Beijing to Pyongyang for a tournament where he was able to play against a North Korean. He went up early, 5-0. “Every time I made a point, there was a sound that came out of people’s mouth. Like ‘ghmm.’ This really dark sound of disapproval, every time I made a point.” As his opponent came back, he began hamming for the crowd, figuring that this was the moment for his diplomacy. After losing, he forewent a handshake to pull his opponent in for a hug. “And that smile, man, you can’t fake that. For the rest of his life, for the rest of those five thousand, three thousand whatever people there, they’re always going to remember this Black dude with the crazy yellow hair from America who came and showed nothing but love.”

In President Biden’s video conference this week with Chinese leader Xi Jinping, Xi referred to Biden as “my old friend.” Yet it is, of course, not quite so simple, in terms of state-to-state relations, as putting friendship first. The countries’ relationship is ambiguous: competitive and sometimes confrontational, but mutually dependent. So the possibilities for collaboration remain vaguely defined: “It seems to me we need to establish some common-sense guardrails,” said Biden at the recent summit. “We have a responsibility to the world, as well as to our people.” Unfolding global climate change certainly demands cooperation between the world’s two most powerful nations and two most flagrant emitters of greenhouse gases.

The United States has caromed from the days of Nixon and Kissinger’s realpolitik to Donald Trump’s blustery and ham-handed trade wars. Biden seems to want to ease tensions while trying to cast the United States once again as the paragon of modern democracy, all while pursuing a strategy of containment—a pose that leaves Chinese leaders nonplussed. Revisiting Ping-Pong Diplomacy amid such ambivalence recalls a world in which surprising gestures might open new paths for cooperation, and even comity. As Mao suggested after George Braithwaite’s team visited China, “the little ball moves the Big Ball.”