Pingpong diplomacy set China on road to Olympics

Aug. 08, 2008, 8:17 a.m. (ET)

BEIJING (AP) For the Americans, that historic trip to China was an unexpected detour into an isolated, unknown country. To China, it was a gesture of opening to the world.

The Beijing Olympics can trace its origins to the "pingpong diplomacy" of 1971 when China signaled its desire to rejoin the international community by hosting Americans for some friendly table tennis.

At the time, Communist leader Mao Zedong famously called it, "the small ball moving the big ball."

China will again blend sports and diplomacy over the next two weeks, as it uses the games to highlight its status as a rising world power. The ability of the Chinese capital, now bristling with skyscrapers and brand new sports venues, to host athletes from around the world is all the more impressive when compared to China's poverty 37 years ago when it invited the group of Americans to visit.

"I'm a witness to the pingpong diplomacy and to see China today, I feel proud," Chinese player Liang Geliang said. "Our China has so many friends now - 'One world, one dream,'" he said, echoing the official slogan of the games.

Tim Boggan, a member of the U.S. delegation who is now 77, recalled the Beijing of 1971 as a place with "almost no cars ... animals leading cars or buses swerving all about."

"It seemed like I was looking at an awful lot of dirt for a lot of the time," said Boggan, contacted by telephone at his home in Merrick, New York.

At the time the leaders of China and the U.S. - Cold War adversaries and on opposing sides in the Vietnam War - were trying to find ways to reduce tensions through behind-the-scenes contacts.

Young American pingpong player Glenn Cowan unknowingly sped the process when he hopped onto the Chinese team bus at the 31st World Table Tennis Championships in Nagoya, Japan.

"He got on the bus and realized it was full of Chinese athletes. He turned around and the bus doors closed. We all saw the USA on the back of his shirt," Zhuang Zedong, a veteran on that Chinese squad, said in a speech at the University of Southern California last year.

Zhuang said he felt compelled to speak to the young American, even though the players had been imbued with anti-American propaganda for most of their lives and Chinese who had contact with foreigners were commonly branded traitors.

He ruffled through his bag, which contained ordinary tokens like Mao badges and pins, and decided instead to give the American a piece of silk embroidery.

"He was only 19 years old at the time, and after receiving the gift from me, the emotions were written in that naive, cute smile on his face. I still remember it well even now," Zhuang said.

When the bus reached the gymnasium, Japanese photographers captured Zhuang and Cowan standing together in the doorway, with the American clutching his gift. The image was on the front pages of Japanese newspapers the next day.

Word of the exchange reached Mao, who decreed that the U.S. squad should be invited to China, in a gesture aimed at ending Cold War antagonism with Washington.

About a week after Cowan's mix-up, a 15-member U.S. delegation entered a country that had been closed to Americans since 1949.

Their ignorance of China was glaring. A fashionable 15-year-old member of the squad, Judy Bochenski, was indignant when questioned about her wardrobe.

"One reporter asked her, 'Are you going into China wearing a miniskirt?' and she looked at him like, yeah, is there any reason why I shouldn't?" Boggan said in a telephone interview.

Cowan sported a red headband, tie-dyed pants and shaggy hair that fascinated the Chinese, who wore baggy blue or gray tunics.

"When he put his foot up on the table to tie his shoes, this was a breach of decorum that they thought was funny," Boggan said about Cowan, who died in 2004. "Clearly everybody (had) a sense of humor."

The Americans were treated to banquets as they traveled around the country, playing in front of welcoming crowds.

"The ordinary people really wanted to have contact with the outside world and the U.S. was the representative," Liang said. "We wanted to know, what were they like, were they really scary?"

While top Chinese national team members now earn a base salary of about 2 million yuan (US$300,000) a year, Liang received a monthly stipend in 1971 of 50 yuan a month. It was nearly twice an ordinary worker's wages, but left little for luxuries.

"I had five cents a week in spending money," he said this week at his spacious house in suburban Beijing. "I didn't go to movies. I would go to the public bulletin boards to read the newspaper."

Unlike the Beijing Olympics, where China wants to top the gold medal count, the slogan in 1971 was "friendship first, competition second." The unimpressive American team found that their talented opponents made intentional errors to avoid running up the score.

"We couldn't play too ruthlessly," said Liang, who grew up playing in his native region of Guangxi, using the butcher counter at an outdoor market after the stall closed for the day. "We had to show our true wishes, that we were willing to make friends and be friendly with people from all over the world."

U.S. National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger paid a secret visit to China a few months later. U.S. President Richard Nixon became the first American leader to visit the People's Republic of China in February 1972.

Zhuang downplayed his role in the historic event.

"I only know how to play pingpong, how to hit the ball from this side of the table to the other. Sometimes the ball drops, sometimes it goes out of bounds," he said in the speech last year. Zhuang underwent surgery recently and declined to be interviewed.

Politicians like Mao and Nixon were the ones "who built the relationship from this side of the world to the other side," Zhuang said.

China's economic success does not surprise Boggan, though he saw desperate conditions firsthand in 1971.

"I saw their diligence with the table tennis and there's no reason why they're wouldn't be diligent with anything else," the American said.