U.S.-China Diplomatic Relations Begin with Zhou Enlai’s Secret Letter

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the U.S.-China ping-pong diplomacy and Kissinger’s secret visit to China. The American magazine China Online published an article written by Orville Schell, director of the Asia Society’s Center for U.S.-China Relations, revealing the secret contacts between the U.S. and China back then. The whole thing started with a secret letter from Zhou Enlai.

On December 8, 1970, President Yahya Khan of Pakistan, a close ally of China, hand-delivered a double-sealed letter without identification or letterhead to U.S. National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger at the White House. The letter, sent by Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai, expressed the Chinese people’s willingness to discuss with the United States on the basis of an “open agenda.

In fact, from 1955 to 1971, U.S. and Chinese diplomats held a total of 134 talks at the People’s Republic of China embassy in Warsaw, but they all came to nothing, so Kissinger derided them as “sterile”. But Kissinger argued that this time was different because it was the first time since coming to power in 1949 and the Korean War in the early 1950s that Beijing was willing to sit down for formal talks with the United States without preconditions, such as resolving the Taiwan issue first.

On April 6, 1971, four months after Zhou Enlai’s secret letter, a seemingly “ragtag” U.S. table tennis team arrived at the 31st World Table Tennis Championships in Nagoya, Japan. Table tennis is a very popular sport in China, and the Chinese team at the 1971 World Championship was large, with nearly 40 players. By contrast, the U.S. team consisted of only nine players, including a long-haired Los Angeles hippie named Glenn Cowan. Cowan mistakenly boarded a bus that picked up the Chinese team and befriended Chinese table tennis champion Zhuang Zedong, causing a sensation when reporters snapped news photos of the two together.

Zhou Enlai saw this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Judging that the atmosphere between China and the United States was now “friendly” enough, he asked Mao Zedong if he could extend an invitation to the American team to visit Beijing. Mao initially said no, but later informed Zhou Enlai through his “confidential secretary” Zhang Yufeng that he had changed his mind. It was against this backdrop that the U.S. table tennis team became the first American delegation to be allowed into China since 1949. “We didn’t know what we were doing,” recalled Graham Steenhoven, president of the U.S. Table Tennis Association.

In Washington, U.S. officials were equally baffled. They didn’t even know who the amateur ping pong players were. Cohen and John Tannehill, then teenage brats, were both leftists and staunchly opposed to mainstream American culture. Cohen liked to dress as a hippie and smoked pot. Tannehill, a self-proclaimed “Maoist,” praised Mao as “the greatest moral and intellectual leader in the world today.

Ironically, of course, it was not the American “Maoists” that Zhou Enlai was most interested in meeting, but rather the “capitalist leaders” that Tannehill liked to accuse.

As with the invitation, the schedule for the U.S. table tennis team in Beijing was carefully planned by Zhou Enlai. Zhou arranged for 18,000 PLA soldiers to welcome them, and the revolutionary song, “The sea sails on the helm,” blared over loudspeakers.

Zhou Enlai even entertained American ping-pong delegates at the Great Hall of the People, where Cohen, dressed in purple bell-bottoms, asked Zhou Enlai what he thought of American hippies.

Zhou Enlai replied, “Youth seek the truth, and in this search all forms of change are bound to arise.” Zhou chose to be vague before grandly announcing that “ping-pong diplomacy” had “opened a new chapter” in U.S.-China relations.

Kissinger and then-President Nixon watched the scene from Washington, D.C., where the latter jokingly asked the Oval Office visitor if he had learned to play ping-pong. Thanks to Zhou Enlai’s earlier secret letter, they, too, felt the impact of the game-changer. As Kissinger recalled, “We knew something big was going to happen.”

On April 27, 1971, the United States again received another letter from Zhou Enlai through Pakistan. Zhou Enlai wrote: “The Chinese government reiterates its willingness to receive openly in Beijing special envoys of the U.S. President (such as Mr. Kissinger) or the U.S. Secretary of State, or even the U.S. President himself, for direct meetings and discussions.”

On May 10, 1971, Nixon responded that he was “prepared to accept” Zhou’s invitation, and on July 8, 1971, three months after the U.S. ping-pong team’s trip to Beijing, Kissinger, Winston Lord, and two other National Security Council officials, John (Holdridge) and Dick Smyser, plus two Secret Service agents, arrived in Pakistan. The night before he left, Kissinger claimed to be filled with a sense of “excitement and anticipation” and to have lost sleep for the first time since he entered the White House.

Once in Islamabad, instead of taking a limousine to Yahya Khan’s estate, as was officially announced, Kissinger sent a “double” in his place; Kissinger himself drove secretly to a military airfield at 4 a.m. hiding down in a low-slung red Volkswagen SUV. There, he and his team boarded a Pakistan International Airlines plane and took off for Beijing. Shortly after arriving in Beijing, they met Zhou Enlai. Zhou Enlai joked to Kissinger, “You saw how throwing a ping-pong ball threw the Soviet Union into such a state of panic.”

Loder recently wrote that Mao and Zhou made some “huge concessions” to confront the Soviets. According to Lord, the Communists were even willing to let the United States “maintain diplomatic relations with Taiwan”; Kissinger explicitly reiterated that he would continue to sell arms to Taiwan. However, they were unable to convince Zhou Enlai to “renounce the use of force” in the Taiwan Strait, and Zhou promised only to “strive for peaceful liberation.

On July 15, 1971, four days after Kissinger’s return, Nixon announced that he would visit China in person by May of the following year.

Xia Wei believes that in order to avoid domestic politics distorting the course of U.S.-China relations, current President Biden should take a cue from Nixon and engage in secret diplomacy by announcing his willingness to appoint two high-level U.S. plenipotentiaries to meet in a third country (Singapore or Switzerland) with two plenipotentiaries of Xi’s own choosing. On the U.S. side, he sees former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and former President Bill Clinton as suitable candidates. On the Chinese side, he thinks the combination of former Premier Zhu Rongji and former Ambassador to the United States and the United Nations Zhang Yesui would be ideal. Once these four meet and work out two or three new possible options, they will present them to Biden and Xi, and if they see merit in them, they will arrange a summit of their own to see if they can come to some new understanding and agreement.

Again, do you all agree with Xia Wei’s proposal?