Though it took control over the Chinese mainland in 1949, the U.S. government refused to extend diplomatic recognition to the communist-led government in Beijing. And after war on the Korean peninsula pitted Chinese troops against American ones from 1950 to 1953, both governments adopted a stance of official hostility.
Who would have guessed that ping pong could help end that hostility? Or that the great breakthrough in U.S.-China relations could have been advanced by a simple gesture of friendship from one athlete towards another?
But that is what happened.
In 1971 Glenn Cowan, a member of the U.S. national ping pong team, stumbled on to the Chinese team bus at a Tokyo competition. The bus doors closed. Back in China, the Cultural Revolution was continuing and nationalist rhetoric was fierce. The U.S. and China were Cold War foes, each backing opposing sides in the Vietnam War. Chinese athletes were told to avoid mixing with foreigners at international competitions. None of the Chinese players on the bus moved or said anything as the confused Cowan wondered what to do. Sitting at the back, Zhuang Zedong, three-time world men’s champion, felt sorry for Cowan. He gave Cowan a silk-screen portrait. Later, Cowan reciprocated with a t-shirt featuring a peace sign. These small gestures lead to a formal invitation to the American team to visit China, a visit that signaled the arrival of a new era in U.S.-China relations.
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Please double click on the play button to see U.S.-China Institute presentation by Zhuang Zedong.
U.S. President Richard Nixon had come into office in 1969 eager to find a way to reduce tensions between the U.S. and China. China’s Chairman Mao Zedong hoped improved ties would lessen the threat posed by the Soviet Union which had large armies on China’s northern border. Each leader was working with intermediaries to move the relationship out of its counterproductive holding pattern. None expected that a chance exchange at a ping pong competition would permit both sides to communicate their eagerness to move forward.
While Zhuang broke the rule regarding contact with foreign athletes, he insists he was really just following Mao’s more important order. Speaking at the University of Southern California in fall 2007, Zhuang said, "[Mao] told us that friendship was number one and sports and ranking were number two."
While launching the most important bit of U.S.-China sports diplomacy, Zhuang and Cowan were not the first nor would they be the last athlete-diplomats. And the Tokyo ping pong championship was certainly not the first nor last sports venue to be used to make an international political statement.
Nor are sports exchanges the only public efforts which can have diplomatic impact. Cultural exchanges, broadcasting, and people to people organizations can as well.
Last month, the New York Philharmonic visited North Korea and performed. As the New York Times put it, “taking the legacy of Beethoven, Bach and Bernstein to one of the world’s most isolated nations.” While seats at the performances were reserved for North Korea’s political faithful, the mere mention of the visit on North Korean news, let alone images from it, sent important and conciliatory message.
Traditional, or classical, diplomacy involves linear communication from one government to a foreign nation. National leaders negotiate policies on their own, only concerned with the public’s response in terms of their ability to enforce or ratify any agreement upon which they decide.
Public diplomacy, on the other hand, is a transactional process that actively engages public audiences. It is not completely separate from traditional diplomacy; in fact, it enhances it by gauging reactions at the popular level and promoting the friendship of nations. Technological developments such as television and the Internet have not only made this kind of diplomacy more convenient, but also made foreign affairs increasingly salient and participatory for public audiences. This increased participation in foreign affairs often leads to a popular cultural exchange.
"International broadcasting--the Voice of America, the BBC--and the Fullbright programs are examples of exercises in public diplomacy," said Joshua Fouts, former executive director of USC’s Center for Public Diplomacy.
Fouts argues that the diplomats in our technological age are not strictly those of government—those involved in the arts, academia and even athletic competition can be involved in transnational affairs as well.
Competition: friendly or not?
"Sports and music are the two most universal forms of communication," said Daniel Durbin, a professor at the USC Annenberg School of Communication. "They are controlled by a specific set of rules that are commonly agreed upon."
That agreement not only outlines how nations may compete against each other, but also how each may represent its own national ideology in other forms.
In the past, American deadlifting champion Paul Anderson and chess master Bobby Fischer both excelled in two of America’s most surprising victories over Soviet competitors during the Cold War. Since the United States' most pointed competition was with the Soviet Union at the time, victory was presented by American officials and others and was often perceived as a validation of American strength and strategic prowess.
With the Olympics, the story may be similar.
"The Olympics, being international, are a place where nations can assert their own ideology and values," Durbin said. "Winning reinforces these ideologies. Superiority of athletes translates into superiority of represented nations."
Nations and individuals over the years have boycotted or used their participation in the Olympics to make strong political statements.
The 2008 Beijing Olympics
U.S. film director Steven Spielberg’s resignation from his post as the artistic director for the 2008 Olympics earlier this month surprised many. Spielberg accused China of not doing enough to end the “continuing human suffering” in Darfur.
"Sudan's government bears the bulk of the responsibility for these on-going crimes, but the international community, and particularly China, should be doing more,” Spielberg said in a statement.
Official Chinese media has condemned Spielberg’s decision and Internet chatrooms are full of vitriol towards the director.
“"A certain Western director was very naive and made an unreasonable move toward the issue of the Beijing Olympics,” an editorial in the People’s Daily read. “This is perhaps because of his unique Hollywood characteristics. He is not qualified to blame China because he knows nothing about the great efforts the Chinese government has made on Darfur.”
Though Spielberg’s move is the first big setback in staging the Olympics, boycotting or protesting the Olympics has been discussed in America for some time.
In the CNN Democratic debates hosted in New Hamphshire last June, former presidential candidates John Edwards, Joe Biden and Bill Richardson openly discussed the possibility of boycotting the Beijing Olympics as a political statement on human rights issues in Darfur. Their rationale relies on the notion that China holds sway in the region because of its significant use of Sudanese oil.
“We need…to lean on China, which has enormous leverage over Darfur,” Richardson said. “And if the Chinese don't want to do this, we say to them, maybe we won't go to the Olympics.”
The 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan prompted the United States, other Western nations, and China to boycott the 1980 Moscow Olympics. In 1936 Nazi racism and concentration camps had not prevented other nations from participating in the Berlin Games. That Olympics is best remembered by Americans, though, for the amazing performances by Jesse Owens, the African American track star who won four gold medals.
In both cases, the U.S. and its Olympic athletes made strong political statements, albeit in different ways. However, there were no direct and immediate results. The Soviet Union occupation of Afghanistan continued, and the Hitler regime followed through with the Holocaust.
"Beijing hasn't risen to certain levels of international involvement," Durbin said. "[But] boycotting is a symbolic act and nothing else. It doesn't solve anything. Did it solve anything in 1980?"
Additionally, Senator Chris Dodd argued that "boycotting is more likely to delay the kind of influence and support China ought to be providing.” He was the only candidate in that Democratic debate who showed immediate opposition to the proposal.
President George W. Bush has said though he’s frustrated by China’s inaction in Darfur, he will go to the Olympics and not speak publicly about Darfur or other issues. “I view the Olympics as a sporting event,” he said, noting that he raises human rights and other concerns with Chinese leaders frequently, but in private.
Durbin argues that the candidates were using the opportunity to build support from voters concerned about Darfur, as well as those eager to see Democratic candidates take a leading role on global issues.
"[The candidates] just want to tell their constituents that they will act strongly on the international stage, to uphold American ideals," said Durbin.
An Olympic boycott has consequences beyond the lost opportunities for athletes to participate in the highest profile competition. The economic cost to broadcaster NBC lost $34 million in 1980 due to the boycott. It had paid for broadcast rights, but had no airtime to sell advertisers.
"Boycotting is contrary to every idea of what the Olympics stand for. And what you end up doing is punishing your athletes, media and businessmen," said Durbin. "As for human rights issues, going to the Olympics, bringing our cameras, might in fact shed light on the problems there and provide opportunities to solve those problems."
For China the 2008 Beijing Olympics are a grand opportunity to showcase the amazing changes that have occurred in China. Thirty years of rapid economic expansion has made it possible to build impressive venues and erect stunning skylines. In 1971, Zhuang Zedong reached out to a single athlete. In 2008, China is reaching out to the world.
Rune-wen Huang is communications major at the University of Southern California. Connor Gants is a political science major at the University of Southern California.