For World Superpowers, The Negotiating Table Often Had A Net

Jan 20, 2014
Originally published on January 20, 2014 7:44 pm
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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

In the spring of 1971, two global antagonists found a diplomatic opening through an unlikely source, the game of ping-pong.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Good evening. The bamboo curtain has been cracked by a ping-pong ball.

MIKE WALLACE: China lifted the bamboo curtain today, long enough to let in 15 American ping-pong players.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: The first time a group of Americans has been invited to visit China in more than 21 years, since the communists took over.

BLOCK: It became known as ping-pong diplomacy, that visit paving the way for President Nixon's trip to Beijing the next year. But leading up to that moment were decades in which table tennis was carefully manipulated to political ends. That story is laid out by Nicholas Griffin in his new book, "Ping-Pong Diplomacy: The Secret History Behind the Game that Changed the World." Nicholas Griffin, thanks for coming in.

NICHOLAS GRIFFIN: Thanks for having me.

BLOCK: And you start back in the 1920s and you introduce us to this intriguing character, a man you call the forgotten architect of ping-pong diplomacy. He's a British aristocrat and his name is Ivor Montagu. Tell us about Ivor Montagu.

GRIFFIN: Ivor Montagu was born into this extremely wealthy family at the turn of the century in England. And it was a very well-connected family. They were friends with the king and queen of England. Prime Ministers would come to visit, home secretaries. You couldn't have got a more establishment family. But Ivor decided to do things a little differently.

BLOCK: A little.


GRIFFIN: Just a little. Just a little. He sort of veered toward socialism as - when we has 13, 14. And by the time he was 18, he got a little bit more serious and decided to take the step towards communism.

BLOCK: He's a fascinating character. He goes fishing with Trotsky. He lunches with FDR. He produces films with Hitchcock. He's a spy for Stalin. And somehow in here, ping-pong becomes part of what he's all about.

GRIFFIN: That's right. Before he becomes a sort of super-spy with the Soviet military intelligence unit, he's actually working for - secretly for the Comintern, which is the Communist International. And their mandate is to look at all forms of culture and use them to sort of pregnate Western societies with communist ideas. And there were many ways Montagu got involved - his literature, his filmmaking, and then, of course, sport was part of culture.

BLOCK: What was it about ping-pong that made Ivor Montagu feel this could be a pathway for communism, that this was a channel for him to use?

GRIFFIN: First of all, he thought it would sort of move just under the radar. He didn't really think there was a way to commercialize the sport. But he did think there was a way to organize the working class through the sport. And then his other idea was that once you had an international table tennis federation, it meant that he could pass between countries that didn't have diplomatic relations, a very useful thing to do if you're a spy.

BLOCK: In your book, you write that Ivor Montagu is the only reason that 300 million Chinese people play table tennis every week. Is it really that direct a connection?

GRIFFIN: Yes, it really is. There was something that surprised Ivor Montagu, which was when he got in touch with the Chinese just weeks after the People's Republic was founded in 1949, he didn't know that Mao and Premier Zhou Enlai not only loved table tennis, they actually both played at a pretty high standard. They would play in their caves in Yunnan when they were being bombed by Chiang Kai-shek.

So when Montagu arrived, they were very relieved to meet him as well because here in the International Table Tennis Federation, this was an international sporting body run by a communist spy.

BLOCK: How was ping-pong played in China? Who was playing ping-pong in China in those early days of the People's Republic, in the late '40s into the '50s?

GRIFFIN: At the beginning of the '50s, ping-pong really wasn't a big deal in China. But that didn't matter because China, as we know, is a top-down society. So it didn't matter what the people at the bottom wanted to do. It was what the people in the top wanted them to do. And they chose ping-pong. And so you start getting this push through the 1950s. And a lot of money gets put into ping-pong.

They go and recruit the top players out of Hong Kong, and they start building up the system that is world class by the very end of the decade, which, of course, coincides with the Great Leap Forward.

BLOCK: And you have some startling descriptions in here. During the Great Leap Forward, of course, millions - tens of millions of people in China were dying of starvation. There was widespread famine. The economy was in tatters. But the ping-pong players were sheltered from that. They were coddled. They were living a pretty luxurious life.

GRIFFIN: And imagine the pressure, especially when they knew - all these players figured out what was going on in the rest of China. And, of course, it really all builds towards that first world championship being held in Beijing in 1961.

BLOCK: And what happened in that championship?

GRIFFIN: Well, that championship is a gift to China from Ivor Montagu. It was a gift given at the beginning of the Great Leap Forward. And it was supposed to just be sort of a little show-off thing that would be tacked onto the end of the Great Leap Forward. Unfortunately, once we know that there are millions of people dying across the country, they realized that this actually may be the only opportunity to show China at its best and hide what's happening across the Chinese countryside.

And they go and build the largest ping-pong stadium in the world that can sit 18,000 people. It's totally state of the art. They win all the gold medals for China. It gets a decent amount of press coverage. And no one understands that this famine has wiped out maybe 40 million people. But once they do it, these young men and women become, overnight, the biggest celebrities in China. The only people more famous are the revolutionary leaders themselves, who now they become friends with.

They go on holiday with them during the summer. The team gets invited to Premier Zhou Enlai's house, and he's there rolling dumplings with his own hands for them. But then things go sort of horribly wrong during the Cultural Revolution.

BLOCK: And as you describe it, they, along with so many other people, were reviled, were castigated, in many cases killed or committed suicide.

GRIFFIN: That's right. Everything gets flipped on its head in the Cultural Revolution, and anyone who is associated with those revolutionary leaders such as Premier Zhou Enlai were paraded on stage, as the ping-pong team was, in front of thousands of people. Many of them were tortured. Many of them were beaten. Many had their heads shaved. And three of them were driven to their deaths.

BLOCK: Let's jump to 1971, the year of this ping-pong diplomacy when the U.S. team, which is in Japan for the world championships, gets an invitation seemingly out of the blue from the Chinese team. Come visit us. Come to China. And, of course, it was anything but spontaneous. It had been very, very carefully orchestrated.

GRIFFIN: That's right. I mean, it was a much easier story to understand if it were spontaneous. I mean, it's such a lovely story. An American hippie wanders on to a bus, looks around himself, the door is closed and it's the Chinese communists. And suddenly these two men are talking just as a couple of sportsmen and they strike up this friendship and they change the world. It's a lovely story, but it's just not true.

Glen Cowan, the American hippie, was actually waved on to that bus. That bus had waited for him. And this was all coordinated to the nth degree by the Chinese. The only people who didn't know about this coordination were the American team.

BLOCK: You know, I was struck by a quote that you include, reported to be from the wife of Zhou Enlai, who said, the ping-pong ball is very important. You know, it can shake up the whole Earth. Sounds like hyperbole, but I wonder if you've come to believe that at the end.

GRIFFIN: Well, I think there's something key here in why ping-pong works as diplomacy. It couldn't have worked alone. It needed the political framework behind it. Nixon was looking for a way to reach out to Mao Tse-tsung. Mao was looking for a way to reach out to Nixon exactly the same time. But that had fallen quiet because of miscommunication. And the last miscommunication was the Chinese had launched what they considered a very obvious signal and the Americans had missed it.

So now they needed something so obvious that we couldn't miss it. And that's why they picked ping-pong as a form of diplomacy. And guess what, it works. It's on every front page of every newspaper in the world.

BLOCK: Nicholas Griffin, his book is "Ping-Pong Diplomacy: The Secret History Behind the Game that Changed the World." Nicholas, thanks so much.

GRIFFIN: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.