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The US and China come together in table tennis




It all starts with a sliding door, a door that closes, another that opens, the moment the way decides, the life to live. Glenn Cowan is nineteen, has a hippie look and long hair a la Jim Morrison. He’s from California, he lost his father Phil, a big TV movie, four years earlier, and despite the always slightly distracted air a war machine, a ping pong champion, the best under 20 in the United States. At the World Table Tennis Championships in Nagoya, Japan, considered a loose cannon, a child capable of anything. He demonstrates this when the shuttle that takes the athletes back to the village gets lost by a whisker and slips into the first bus that happens. The bus of the Chinese national team, the bus of the enemy. Frost. Nobody talks for ten minutes. Then there is one on it: Zhuang Zedong, the most popular player in the Dragon Empire, the team captain, three-time world champion. She shakes his hand, gives him a side portrait of the Huangshan Mountains, addresses him through an interpreter: “Even though the US government is hostile to China, the American people are friends with the Chinese. With this present I want to show you the friendship we have for you ».

Cowan, caught off guard, tries to answer, but only has a comb in his pocket. Return to Zhuang the next day wearing a red, white, and blue pacifist flag t-shirt featuring the Beatles’ words from Let It Be. The photo goes around the world and the world changes face. There has been no relationship between the United States and China since 1949. The war between South Korea and North Korea, with the United States and China lined up on opposite barricades and then Vietnam, basically turned the two countries into enemies. But now everything will change, thanks to an accidentally taken shuttle.

In China, table tennis is more than a game of table tennis. the national sport, the cheap proletarian game that workers and peasants can also play and the International Table Tennis Federation, one of the few federations that recognizes the People’s Republic of China and not Taiwan. it is impossible to separate ping pong from politics: “Think of a ping pong ball as the head of your capitalist enemy and hit him with your socialist punch,” explains Mao Tze Tung. But the great Helmsman has been trying for some time to improve relations with the United States and especially to find a geopolitical counterbalance to the Soviet Union. When, lying on his bed, he sees the pictures of Cowan and Zhuang on the pages of Dacankao, a newspaper reserved only for the regime’s poppies, he lights up. And he decides to invite the American team to China. a clear signal to Washington: Beijing is starting to thaw. On April 10, 1971, just half a century ago, the US team, seven players, four men and three women, reached China from Hong Kong. They are the first Americans to have visited the empire since Mao took power, such as landing on the moon. In the group there is Judy Bochenski Hoarfrost, 15, with a brown bob, blue eyes: she accidentally replaces a companion and is on the front pages of newspapers around the world shaking hands with Chinese Prime Minister Zhou Enlai. Before this gang of children, only 11 Americans had been admitted to communist China, but they were comrades of the Black Panther Party.

For Richard Nixon, who has built a political career around anti-communism, the possibility of rapprochement with Beijing is an opportunity to divide the international communist camp and ease the pressure on the United States trapped in Vietnam. Three months after the christening of what has been called “the ping-pong diplomacy,” Kissinger arrives in Beijing on a secret mission. The spring after Nixon crosses the Forbidden City threshold and with Mao cheers for reconciliation, the two countries resume diplomatic relations seven years later.

Mao’s wife Jiang Qing loves Zhuang, some even talk about a secret relationship with China’s most powerful woman. Thanks to her, he becomes sports minister and member of the party’s Central Committee. Not a good man, but a torturer of the regime. “I’ve done a lot of terrible things that I now regret,” he said in an interview in 2007. But things are changing. After Mao’s death in 1976, Jiang and his magic circle, the infamous Gang of Four, are arrested for treason. Zhuang also ends up in prison. He was banned from contact with the outside world for four years, under house arrest for two and a half years and exiled to Shanxi province for five years. He is even forbidden to play table tennis with other prisoners. He becomes a street sweeper, one day he desperately tries to hang himself. Life lasts for Glenn too. He has drug problems, is diagnosed with schizophrenia, is convinced he is Mick Jagger’s brother, his marriage lasts two months, loses everything he has, becomes homeless and dies of a heart attack at the age of 52 in the psychiatric hospital where he was hospitalized. Zhuang, who left seven years ago at the age of 72: rehabilitated, returned to the United States in 2007 to meet Cowan’s mother. “Not being able to see you anymore – he writes in a letter he leaves to his mother – is the biggest regret of my life”. Not all doors open at the right time.

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