On this day in 1971, the American Ping-Pong team began a visit to the People’s Republic of China (PRC). During the 1971 World Table Tennis Championships in Japan, American player Glenn Cowan had accidentally boarded the Chinese team’s bus and befriended PRC player Zhuang Zedong (or so the story goes); Zedong invited Cowan and his teammates to visit China, and, after a personal intervention from Chairman Mao himself, visas were granted for the Americans. For a little over a week, the two teams toured China, exchanging gifts and forming a close bond of friendship. Since the formation of the communist PRC in 1949, almost no Americans had visited the country, and the United States had refused to recognize the legitimacy of the PRC as a state. After the unlikely incident in Japan, however, matters began to change rapidly.
Despite aligning against the West, the PRC sought a normalization of relations with the United States in response to rising tensions with fellow communists in the USSR. Additionally, Mao recognized the need to “open” the country after decades of disastrous (and unpopular) reforms. For the Americans, a close relationship with the PRC gained them leverage in peace talks during the Vietnam War. Soon after the ping-pong players’ visit to China, embargoes were lifted and formal lines of communication opened between the US and the PRC; a visit by US president Richard B. Nixon followed in February of 1972. One of the most significant breakthroughs in 20th century diplomacy – one that improved international stability and thawed out the Cold War a little – began as little more than an unlikely friendship between two sportsmen.