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'Ping Pong Diplomacy's' Legacy Challenged, 50 Years Later

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Today marks the 50th anniversary of Ping-Pong diplomacy. That's when the U.S. table tennis team went to China for exhibition games at the height of the Cold War. Their trip changed history. But half a century later, the legacy of Ping-Pong diplomacy faces challenges. NPR's China correspondent John Ruwitch has this report.

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: Judy Hoarfrost remembers the day she and her teammates crossed into China. She was 15, the youngest member of the U.S. Ping-Pong team.

JUDY HOARFROST: We took the train from Hong Kong to the border. And then we walked across the border. And that actually was a big moment for me, walking across the bridge. There was this music playing, and it was very, you know...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE EAST IS RED")

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Signing in non-English language).

HOARFROST: It was just very rousing, you know, very - it was like being in a movie, really. It was just very dramatic.

RUWITCH: The team had been in Japan competing in the World Championships. Two days before the tournament ended, Team China surprised the Americans with an invitation to come to their country and play some games. The U.S. team had to get a green light from the State Department. And as a minor, Hoarfrost, whose maiden name is Bochenski, had to get permission from her parents.

HOARFROST: And, of course, they said, yes, we could go.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Good evening. The bamboo curtain has been cracked by a Ping-Pong ball.

RUWITCH: That improbable moment might not have been as spontaneous as it looked. President Nixon thought engagement with China could help end the Vietnam War. And Chinese leader Mao Zedong knew that isolation and perpetual estrangement from the U.S. was bad for China. They also shared a common foe, the Soviet Union. But there was a hitch.

YAFENG XIA: By the time Nixon becomes president in early 1969, there was no contact, no channel for the two sides to talk to each other.

RUWITCH: Yafeng Xia is an expert in Cold War China-U.S. relations at Long Island University. He says Nixon told his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, to reopen talks with China in Poland. Kissinger, in turn, asked the U.S. ambassador there to make contact.

XIA: And it happened in December 1969.

RUWITCH: At a fashion show in the Polish capital. The U.S. ambassador spotted the second secretary from the Chinese Embassy, who promptly bolted.

XIA: And American ambassador run after him and said, I have important message for your country, your ambassador.

RUWITCH: China got the message. The Warsaw channel was reopened in 1970, and the stage was soon set for a Ping-Pong invitation.

Orville Schell is director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society. He was a journalist covering China in the '70s.

ORVILLE SCHELL: The whole policy of engagement began with Ping-Pong diplomacy.

RUWITCH: Three months after the Ping-Pong games, Nixon made a stunning announcement.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RICHARD NIXON: Premier Zhou Enlai, on behalf of the government of the People's Republic of China, has extended an invitation to President Nixon to visit China.

RUWITCH: Beijing was soon admitted to the United Nations. And by the end of the decade, China and the U.S. had established diplomatic ties. Orville Schell again.

SCHELL: You could say that 1971 was the Book of Genesis for the chapter which we've now conclusively come to an end in, namely that somehow we would find a way to get along and work things out.

RUWITCH: Back then, there was political will for rapprochement. And, he says, it made strategic sense.

SCHELL: Now we're heading in the other direction.

RUWITCH: There's bipartisan support for a tougher posture toward China as its power grows. Trump administration officials proclaimed the policy of engagement a failure and set out to decouple the world's two biggest economies. So far, the Biden administration is taking a similar tack. Back in '71, China was impoverished and weak. That's not the case anymore. And Schell says its leader is feeling emboldened.

SCHELL: Xi Jinping is very unrepentant. And presently, I think Xi Jinping's motive is not to show any deference to the West, not to evince any need to come together or compromise.

RUWITCH: All of which makes it hard to imagine anything like Ping-Pong diplomacy happening today, he says. There's even growing talk of a possible boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics in China over human rights.

Connie Sweeris was on the trip to China 50 years ago that broke the ice. She says a boycott is the opposite of what's needed.

CONNIE SWEERIS: You're stopping the exchange of normal people and athletes getting together. And that's where I feel barriers get broken down.

RUWITCH: Including barriers that nobody thought could be broken.

John Ruwitch, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.