The U.S. table tennis team begins a weeklong visit to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) at the invitation of China’s communist government. The well-publicized trip was part of the PRC’s attempt to build closer diplomatic relations with the United States, and was the beginning of what some pundits in the United States referred to as “ping-pong diplomacy.”
Diplomatic relations between the United States and the PRC ended in 1949 when the U.S. severed ties to the new communist government that had taken power. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the United States and the PRC remained implacable enemies. During the Korean War they clashed militarily, and during the 1960s they supported opposing sides in the conflict in Vietnam. By the late 1960s, however, the communist leadership in the PRC began to rethink its policy towards the United States.
Several factors motivated China to reconsider its relationship with the United States. Chinese officials hoped that closer relations with the United States might provide a very useful counterweight in Chinese relations with Russia. Chinese communists were concerned that the Soviets were deviating from the Marxist hard-line, and Soviet and Chinese troops engaged in some brief but bloody border skirmishes in 1969. The Chinese desire for U.S. trade was another factor motivating the re-establishment of diplomatic ties. The invitation to the U.S. table tennis team in April 1971 was a friendly gesture indicating that the Chinese hoped for a general easing of tensions.
The “ping-pong diplomacy” worked. In June 1972, President Richard Nixon made an historic visit to China to begin talks about re-establishing diplomatic relations. The Chinese table tennis team also toured America, causing a short-lived craze for table tennis.
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