During Richard Nixon's administration, one of the first public signs of improved U.S.-China relations came on April 6, 1971, when the American Ping-Pong team, in Japan for the 31st World Table Tennis Championship, received "a surprise invitation from their Chinese colleagues for an all-expense paid visit to the People's Republic of China." Four days later, on April 10, 1971, "nine players, four officials, and two spouses stepped across a bridge from Hong Kong to the Chinese mainland," thus becoming the first group of Americans allowed into China since the Communist takeover in 1949 and ushering in an era of what has been dubbed "Ping-Pong Diplomacy."
According to PBS:
Ten journalists, including five Americans, were also invited to cover the team’s visit, ending the information blockade from the People's Republic in place since 1949. From April 11th to 17th, a delighted American public followed the daily progress of the visit in newspapers and on television, as the Americans played - and lost - exhibition matches with their hosts, toured the Great Wall and Summer Palace, chatted with Chinese students and factory workers, and attended the Canton Ballet.
Premier Chou En-lai worked the public relations opportunity beautifully, receiving the Americans at a banquet in the Great Hall of the People on April 14. "You have opened a new chapter in the relations of the American and Chinese people," he told the unlikely diplomats. "I am confident that this beginning again of our friendship will certainly meet with majority support of our two peoples." He also extended an invitation for more American journalists to visit China, provided they do not "all come at one time." That same day, the U.S. announced plans to remove a 20-year embargo on trade with China.
Despite the public rapproachment between the two states, Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger "decided to keep their back-channel negotiations with China to themselves [and] it was not until July 15, after Kissinger's secret mission to Beijing, that Nixon announced that he, too, would make the journey the following year, as the first American president to visit China."
This week, The Richard Nixon Foundation will commemorate the 40th anniversary of this extraordinary series of 1971 and 1972 Chinese-American matches in "The 40th Anniversary of Ping Pong Diplomacy: The Rematch," to be held July 8, 2011 in the White House East Room at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library, featuring members of the original '71 and '72 teams.
According to the official press release, "an impressive lineup of American and Chinese Olympic and World champions, including original players, will go head-to-head in free exhibitions on July 8 beginning at 9 a.m. The competition will showcase exciting youth, elite and collegiate rounds, with a spectacular finale of rematches of the original games. Huiaiying Zheng and Liang Geliang will again represent the Chinese and Judy Hoarfrost and George Braithwaite, the first Americans to visit China since 1949 at the time, will represent the U.S."
The Foundation will also host an All-American Welcome BBQ in the Library's East Room on Thursday, July 7 at 5 p.m. The program will feature remarks by President Nixon's brother Edward, Ping Pong Diplomacy veteran Tim Boggan, U.S. and Chinese officials, and table tennis matches between celebrities and world champions. If you happen to be in Southern California this week and would like to get in on the action, please click here.