Stephen Orlins: Who Are Today's Ping-Pong Diplomats?

Jan 28 , 2021

Stephen Orlins, President of the National Committee on United States-China Relations.


Let me talk about the beginnings of NCUSCR and Ping-Pong diplomacy because it is relevant to today, and then talk about what we as NGOs and our governments can do to strengthen people-to-people ties between our two countries because everyone in this room knows that people-to-people relationships are the foundation for our political relationships, and ultimately it is the people of the United States and the people of China who will determine how and whether those relationships create a more secure and prosperous world.

NCUSCR was established in 1966. At that time, the United States was involved in the Vietnam War and China was entering the Cultural Revolution. Despite America's public denunciation of China as “Red China” and China's denunciation of Americans as “decadent imperialists,” Chairman Mao and Premier Zhou and President Nixon and Secretary Kissinger had decided that the Soviet Union posed a common threat. The years of no diplomatic relations had to be ended. But 22 years of silence and hostility had created deep mutual mistrust. This was true for officials and for ordinary people in both countries, who needed to be convinced that the resumption of relations was a good thing. 

What made this happen? In large part it was a sport — PingPong — that changed attitudes on both sides. It was Ping-Pong that created the first person-to-person ties between the People's Republic of China and the United States. And because dramatic political events were taking place at the same time, that period is now referred to as the time of “Ping-Pong diplomacy.”

This happened almost precisely 50 years ago. At that point, China had been cut off from diplomatic relations with most of the rest of the world for over two decades. Then, seemingly out of the blue, the U.S. Ping-Pong team, which had been visiting Japan for the World Table Tennis Championship, was invited to visit China. The story goes that the invitation came about because an American player happened to get on a bus with some Chinese players. They started talking. 

You can probably imagine the conversation and how at some point someone said, “Well, you should come over and we can have a match.” That's the story. Records now show that in actuality Chairman Mao and Premier Zhou Enlai had been discussing the possibility for a while. The story goes that when the Ministry of Foreign Affairs received the request, they denied it.  Subsequently Mao read the story in Can Kao Xiao Xi (Reference News) and approved the visit.

It's hard to imagine now just how dramatic and exciting this was. All kinds of formal permissions were required, but the U.S. team's visit took place only a few days later. Time magazine called it the “ping heard round the world.” There was a huge amount of press coverage. Over the course of that tour, the young American and Chinese table tennis players, many of them teenagers, changed the way ordinary people in their countries thought about so-called Red or Communist China and the decadent, imperialistic United States. 

And there were major political results, too. The people-to-people exchange provided President Nixon with a backdrop for the major diplomatic shift that was in progress. During the U.S. team's visit to China, the United States announced the end of a 20-year trade embargo against the People's Republic. In July 1971, Nixon announced that Secretary Kissinger had secretly visited China, and then he himself went to Beijing from Feb. 20 to 27, 1972, the first visit by an American president to China.

The American Ping-Pong team reciprocated by inviting their Chinese opponents to visit the United States, which they did in April of 1972. This is when the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations (NCUSCR) stepped in to organize what became a huge media event, broadcast by every major news outlet and publicized in magazines. The two teams traveled on one charter plane and another plane was needed for all the reporters and camera people. 

The Chinese players completely dominated the matches, but the U.S. players managed to win surprise victories especially when the tour landed in their hometowns, in the spirit of “friendship first, competition second”. 

I tell this story for two reasons. First, I recently wrote an op-ed for HK SCMP suggesting ways that the U.S. and Chinese governments could enter into a virtuous cycle of actions and reactions. I was pleased six days later to discover that Reference News has reprinted the article and distributed it to China's Party elites. I was then disappointed to learn that the criticisms of Chinese government policies had been deleted. I wondered what would have happened if the article in Reference News that led to the invitation to the American Ping-Pong team had been similarly censored.

Second, I tell this story and ask, Who are the Ping-Pong players of 2021? Who among us can change the narrative about U.S.-China relations?

In the last 50 years, besides Ping-Pong, the greatest positive image of China was the 2008 Olympics. There were certain images that I won't forget, images I think still mean something to Americans. 

The first was Yao Ming walking in front of the Chinese team at the opening ceremony holding the hand of a 9-year-old survivor of the Sichuan earthquake. The human emotion conveyed through that image was unforgettable and shared around the world. The second, totally unplanned, was Liu Xiang, the hurdler, having to succumb to his injury and his coach coming to tears describing his hard work and disappointment. Americans thought, “I feel his pain. That's just how I would feel.”   

So at a time when there is too much fear of China's rise, in part because China can be so different from America, this one image conveyed, better than thousands of words ever could — better than I ever could — that we are all the same. That the threat of climate change, terrorism, economic crisis and pandemic knows no boundaries.

To get there let me make a few simple suggestions and leave it to the panel to put flesh on the bones of my suggestions.

• Both countries need to revise their visa policies to allow for the free flow of people. China needs to allow critics of China to visit China and America needs to stop restricting visits of Chinese scholars.

•  Closing the Houston and Chengdu consulates undermines people to people contact. Both should be reopened ASAP.

• Journalists educate and lay the foundation for people-to-people contacts. America should stop limiting Chinese state media in the U.S. and China should invite expelled American journalists back to China and allow even more to come. 

• China should end its limits on English language media and social media in China.

• America should reinstate the Fulbright-Hays program and make clear to all that Chinese students have a welcoming home in American universities. China needs to stop limiting what research American academics can do in China.

• The HKNSL potentially penalizes speech in the United States when the individual visits China, which discourages Americans from traveling there. China should clarify that it does not intend to implement the law in that manner.

• Finally, now that America has rejoined the WHO and is science driven, the U.S. and China need to immediately convene a virtual gathering of scientists to share best practices in dealing with COVID-19. Jointly defeating this plague will do more than anything to strengthen people-to-people exchanges and allow me to see all of you in person again. 

(50 years ago, Ping Pong helped us achieve “small ball diplomacy”)

(50 years later today, we also have many “small balls” that we can play)

(Every suggestion I just gave can be a “small ball”)

(Together let's get these “small balls” going,)

(and through various people-to-people exchanges, help restore U.S.-China relations the soonest. Thank you!)