In April, 1971, while practicing at the World Table Tennis Championship, in Nagoya, Japan, an American Ping-Pong player named Glenn Cowan needed a ride, and he boarded a bus carrying the Chinese team. Cowan, who was nineteen years old, had a mop of brown hair that fell to his shoulders and a toothy grin. Most of the Chinese players watched him warily; they had been warned not to talk to foreigners. But after a few minutes Zhuang Zedong, a former world champion, came to the front of the bus and presented him with a gift, a silk-screen portrait of Huangshan mountain, which Zhuang had been carrying in his bag. Cowan rummaged around in his, looking for a way to reciprocate, but he could only come up with a comb. The following day, Cowan presented Zhuang with a T-shirt emblazoned with a red, white, and blue peace sign and the words “Let It Be.” Soon afterward, China invited the American team to visit the country, and they became the first delegation of Americans to do so since the communist takeover in 1949.
As a parable of the power of sports, the story is irresistible. And you don’t have to stop there: you can, if you like, draw a line from “Ping-Pong diplomacy” to Nixon’s visit to China; to Nike opening its first factory in mainland China, in 1981; to Yao Ming’s selection by the Houston Rockets as the No. 1 pick in the 2002 N.B.A. draft; to the enormous number of Chinese fans who reportedly streamed N.B.A. games and content in 2017–18—more than six hundred million, roughly twice as many people as live in the United States.
But the truth, of course, is more complicated. As Nicholas Griffin explains in “Ping-Pong Diplomacy: The Secret History Behind the Game That Changed the World,” the encounter was not as spontaneous as it’s sometimes made out to be. China was consciously using Ping-Pong as a way to initiate contact with the U.S., and the U.S. had its own reasons for being receptive. (Though Cowan’s boarding of the bus may have been accidental, he later said, “I was invited actually to board the Chinese bus with the team, which shocked me, of course.”) The two countries initiated several athlete exchanges over the next decade, with mixed success; though the Chinese adopted the slogan “Friendship first, competition second,” tensions sometimes threatened to derail the visits. In a recent column in the Washington Post, Pete Millwood, a fellow in East Asian history at the London School of Economics, catalogued some of the more sensational anecdotes: rats thrown by protesters when the Chinese team visited the United States; a fistfight among the U.S. Track and Field team at a formal banquet in 1975, which appalled the hosts. “Americans will be Americans,” a senior official travelling with the team said. He added, “The Chinese will have to learn that.”
Both sides are still learning, clearly. In the two decades since Yao was drafted, the N.B.A. has become China’s most popular sports league, and the league has embraced the notion that it might facilitate a closer relationship between the two countries. “Sport has been used to bridge divides between cultures,” Silver said after a meeting, last year, in Shanghai, with Yao, who is now head of the Chinese Basketball Association. “Yao reminded me of the famous Ping-Pong diplomacy forty years ago that was then current during that time. Yao suggested that maybe it’s time to move to a larger ball.” Silver used similar language after a tweet posted by the Rockets’ general manager, Daryl Morey, earlier this month, expressed support for Hong Kong protesters, prompting an immediate backlash in China. “We have great respect for the history and culture of China and hope that sports and the NBA can be used as a unifying force to bridge cultural divides and bring people together,” Silver asserted in the N.B.A.’s first statement after the C.B.A. expressed its displeasure with Morey’s tweet and Chinese television stations suspended broadcasts of Rockets games as well as preseason games that were set to be played in China.
The N.B.A.’s statement was widely criticized as an attempt to appease the Chinese government. But Silver’s avowed faith in the potential of the game to unite people was generally unremarked upon. He returned to that conviction in a second statement about the controversy, one that more forcefully articulated a commitment to free speech. “Basketball runs deep in the hearts and minds of our two peoples,” he said. “At a time when divides between nations grow deeper and wider, we believe sports can be a unifying force that focuses on what we have in common as human beings rather than our differences.” Of all the faulty assumptions about the relationship between the two countries—and particularly the business of American sports and the vast Chinese market—that were exposed by the reactions to the tweet, both in China and in the United States, the idea that sports are powerful engines of coöperation and peace has largely been given a pass.
Why? There is the cynical interpretation: that no one critiques that part of the message because it’s an empty platitude that no one really believes. The N.B.A. did not make a play for the Chinese market because the league’s owners wanted to use the game as a vehicle for world peace. They wanted to use it as a vehicle for profit. We all understand this. More than a decade ago, David Stern, the commissioner at the time, acknowledged that he was troubled by China’s dismal human-rights record and authoritarian practices. “Believe me, the China situation bothers me. . . . But at the end of the day I have a responsibility to my owners to make money,” he told Sports Illustrated’s Jack McCallum. “I can never forget that, no matter what my personal feelings might be.” Silver, Stern’s former deputy, has earned a reputation as the sympathetic steward of the most progressive of the major sports leagues, but he is unquestionably a savvy businessman. The ratings for local American broadcasts of N.B.A. games have been in steady decline for years. Meanwhile, the giant Chinese conglomerate Tencent is paying the N.B.A. $1.5 billion over five years for the rights to stream games online in China. During the playoffs last year, audiences in China were bigger than they were in the United States.
Silver has held steady after his initial fumbling, and he has refused to discipline Morey, despite what he has described as an insistence by the Chinese government that he do so. But he could never say what Stern did, at least not publicly; thanks in part to social media, a stated concern for social justice has become a P.R. necessity for any enterprise that, like the N.B.A., has a largely progressive fan base. Better to say that the league is in the business of building bridges, not that it does what it needs to do in order to stay in business.
I suspect, though, that Silver really does, at least to some degree, believe that the N.B.A. has a positive social mission, much the way that Facebook executives appear to believe, however conveniently, in the inherent value of connecting people. Basketball may be a way to sell shoes, but it is not a pair of sneakers: like all sports, the game gives people from different backgrounds a shared interest and encourages them to invest something of themselves in each other. The story of Cowan and Zhuang is hardly the only parable of sports as a mechanism to diffuse geopolitical tension—there are the soccer balls that were passed between German and English soldiers when they emerged from the trenches on Christmas Day, 1914; there are the North and South Korean athletes who marched together during the Opening Ceremonies at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, in 2018. The whole Olympic movement is built around the concept that sports can be a substitute for war and that fair play on a field or in a stadium can influence the course of international relations. Despite several spectacular ethics scandals involving the International Olympic Committee and its various offshoots, the spirit has survived, if not in the institutions then in many of the participants. Sporting events of any real size are warped, as a simple matter of course, by money, but their power to unite people can’t be discredited completely.
The mistake is to believe that the social influence of sports is always for good. It isn’t, any more than free markets always promote freedom. The unifying power of sports also makes them an appealing tool for authoritarian governments. They offer the opportunity to showcase national strength and to manipulate the passions of the public. Think of Hitler’s attraction to the Olympics as a showcase for triumphalist fascism, or of the Soviet sports system. Many people believed that granting China the rights to host the 2008 Summer Olympics would pressure the government to liberalize civil society and to improve its treatment of dissidents; instead, it mostly highlighted the appeal of such events for other repressive governments. Qatar is set to host the World Cup next year, in stadiums built by a migrant labor force. According to a study conducted by the Guardian, hundreds of migrant workers die of heat stress every year in Qatar, and Amnesty International has reported that many of the laborers constructing World Cup venues have gone unpaid. Two years after Qatar’s World Cup, Beijing is set to host the winter Olympics. The other finalist for that bid was Kazakhstan.
There is a reason that China, during the Cold War, took up Ping-Pong in particular. The game had been codified, in the nineteen-twenties, by a British banker named Ivor Montagu, who was a communist, and who believed in the game as a suitably proletarian alternative to such aristocratic pursuits as lawn tennis and polo. (As Nicholas Griffin writes in “Ping Pong Diplomacy,” it “was one of the few sports you could play without ever leaving the factory.”) Montagu helped to found the International Table Tennis Federation, in 1926, and served as its president for more than four decades. During the early fifties, after the Communist Party had assumed power in China, Montagu encouraged the country to participate in the federation. In 1959, a Chinese player named Rong Guotuan won the federation’s world championship, and Mao declared that Ping-Pong was China’s “spiritual nuclear weapon.” Two years later, at the height of the Great Leap Forward, when millions of Chinese people were dying from starvation, Montagu, who also served as a Soviet spy, decided that the world championship would be held in Peking.
Montagu’s belief that, because Ping-Pong could be played on factory floors, the sport would help spread communism across the globe, now seems more than a little ridiculous. But it seems equally ridiculous to believe that the American sport of basketball inherently promotes democratic values. That isn’t to say that China and the N.B.A. have no effect on each other. Several days after Morey tweeted support for the protesters in Hong Kong, LeBron James, known as one of professional sports’ most eloquent spokespeople for social justice, told the press that he regarded the tweet as ill-considered. “Yes, we all do have freedom of speech, but at times there are ramifications for the negative that can happen when you’re not thinking about others, and you’re only thinking about yourself,” James said. “I don’t want to get into a word or sentence feud with Daryl Morey, but I believe he wasn’t educated on the situation at hand, and he spoke, and so many people could have been harmed, not only financially but physically. Emotionally. Spiritually. So, just be careful what we tweet and what we say, and what we do. Even though, yes, we do have freedom of speech, but there can be a lot of negative that comes with that, too.”
It may be that James—who was in China for an exhibition game between the Lakers and the Nets at the time, and who has been at the forefront of the player-empowerment movement—saw the matter partly as a labor issue: the N.B.A. was exposing young players to a delicate situation with seemingly world-historical ramifications while Morey, a front-office figure, was staying silent, post-tweet, protected by the league from punishment. But, at a moment when freedom of speech appeared genuinely threatened, James’s focus on the inconvenience to himself and his teammates was uncharacteristically tone-deaf. And his insistence that Morey “wasn’t educated on the situation” called to mind the open letter that the Brooklyn Nets owner Joseph Tsai, the co-founder of the Chinese multinational Alibaba, had posted on Facebook days before. Tsai insisted that “1.4 billion Chinese citizens stand united when it comes to the territorial integrity of China,” and suggested that Morey “was not as well informed as he should have been.” Tsai concluded the letter, “I ask that our Chinese fans keep the faith in what the NBA and basketball can do to unite people from all over the world.”
The Chinese government would also like to emphasize that many foreigners are not fully educated about why state authorities with clubs are beating protesters in Hong Kong, where the violence has been increasing, and that they do not understand exactly what Xi Jinping meant when he said, on Sunday, “Anyone attempting to split China in any part of the country will end in crushed bodies and shattered bones.” The idea that free speech has financial, physical, emotional, and spiritual costs is one that undemocratic governments encourage, and that thinking can spread, too. That’s the thing about bridges: they go both ways.