Ping Pong Diplomacy and 44 Million Dead

No matter: China had built the world’s greatest table tennis stadium


Diplomacy is a facade. Give peace a chance is often a manufactured charade by totalitarian regimes looking for useful idiots to exploit. To the totalitarian mindset everything is political and propaganda is a tool for obscuring mass murder.

How did that Sino-American rapprochement come to be? The long-accepted story is that the catalyst was a spontaneous burst of friendship between a hippie American table tennis player and a Chinese world champion. The narrative makes sense: Ping pong is a recreational game for suburban garages and frat houses, so how could it be anything other than benign? But that telling is a misreading of a pivotal event whose origins were more calculated than have been acknowledged—set in motion, it seems, by the Chinese government itself.

By 1971, ping pong, like the Olympics, already had a political history. The game had been codified, and the International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) was founded in 1926, by the Honorable Ivor Montagu. The youngest son of the Baron Swaythling, one of England’s wealthiest men, Montagu was producing early Alfred Hitchcock films when he embarked on a parallel career as a Soviet propagandist and spy. The day he turned 21, the Cambridge student had left for Moscow, where his family’s extraordinary connections to prime ministers, royalty, generals and admirals were quickly noted.

Eager to prove himself to the Kremlin, Montagu would return to England and spend decades quietly working for the Soviets. A true communist believes that everything from family to food, film to sport, is political. By the 1950s, Montagu had already proved as much. He had persuaded Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong and his deputy, Premier Zhou Enlai, to make ping pong the national game of China, inviting them into the ITTF and assuring their good treatment there.

Not only did Montagu tap the Chinese to host their first World Championships, in 1961, but the surrounding publicity helped to cover up the real story: Somewhere between 17 and 44 million people had recently starved to death during the Great Leap Forward, Mao’s collectivization and industrialization program. No matter: China had built the world’s greatest table tennis stadium, and it hosted 33 countries and won most of the gold medals.

Britain’s Foreign Office dismissed the championships as a “not entirely negligible fillip to the regime,” but that was missing the point. Propaganda isn’t always about promoting events—it can also be about obscuring them.