Over the past few years, we have marked the 50th anniversaries of official visits to China by then National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger and President Richard Nixon. Historians have scrutinized the records of their conversations with Chinese leaders, but less attention has been given to people-to-people exchange that began with “ping-pong diplomacy.” Based on archival sources in China and the United States and numerous interviews, Pete Millwood argues in Improbable Diplomats that the significance of cultural and scientific exchanges goes beyond reacquainting the Chinese and American people with each other after two decades of minimal contact; exchanges also influenced Sino-American diplomatic relations and helped transform post-Mao China.

In an interview conducted on March 9, 2023, Pete Millwood discusses with Alison Friedman how a diverse cast of Chinese and Americans – athletes and physicists, performing artists and seismologists – played a critical, but often overlooked, role in remaking U.S.-China relations.

About the speakers


ALISON FRIEDMAN: Hello, my name is Alison Friedman, and I’m the James and Susan Moeser Executive and Artistic Director for Carolina Performing Arts at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill (UNC). I am thrilled to be here today on behalf of the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations to speak with Pete Millwood, postdoctoral fellow in the Society of Fellows in the Humanities at the University of Hong Kong.  

We’re talking today about his new book, Improbable Diplomats: How Ping-Pong Players, Musicians, and Scientists Remade U.S.-China Relations. It was published by Cambridge University Press in December of 2022. So welcome, Pete.  

PETE MILLWOOD: Thanks, Alison. Great to be here and to be speaking with the National Committee and you as a representative of the National committee.  

FRIEDMAN: That’s great. Well, I’m really excited to be able to talk to you about this book because it’s a topic hugely important to my heart and my life. As you know, I’ve spent the last 20 years working in China in cultural diplomacy and cultural exchange, touring artists from China all over the world, touring international artists from all over the world into China. So I have always felt and experienced in my life the impact and the ripple effect that these kinds of non-governmental exchanges and experiences have on the relationship between our two countries. And your book really dives in deeply into some key moments in history that have affected this. So, I’m excited to hear more.  

And I want to start just by reading a quick what I think is a great summary of your book. For those who are watching, who haven’t read it, “The significance of cultural and scientific exchanges went beyond reacquainting the Chinese and American people after two decades of minimal contact. Exchanges also powerfully influenced Sino-American diplomatic relations and helped transform post-Mao China.” So, you really talk about the symbiotic relationship that it had these non-governmental activities and the political activities as well. 

But before we dive in, tell us a little bit about why you wrote this book and who you were intending to be the audience for it.  

MILLWOOD: Yeah. So, I wrote it as a product of my Ph.D., which I completed now I guess about five years ago or so. And one of the reasons that I wrote it was access to new sources. When I was a Ph.D. student, I was fortunate in gaining access to new sources in the United States and also in China. I think in the last decade or so, the amount of sources reveal on the U.S. side the non-governmental involvement in Sino-American relations and also on the Chinese side, some sources in provincial municipal archives and also in some government collections that really allow us, I think, now to look at this other story in Sino-American relations in the 1970s, the story of how the two societies reconnected in this period.  

And I think maybe this sense of this as an “other” story was another motivation for writing the book. I think we have fantastic histories of Sino-American relations in the 1970s, but I think if there’s one commonality in that existing work, it is that it’s focused on diplomatic contacts between the two sides. The records of Henry Kissinger’s talks with Zhou Enlai for example, have been pored over by political scientists, by journalists and by historians now. And I think those books are really valuable. I continue to read them and assign them to my students. But I also think that they overlook sometimes this story of the relationship between the two societies and the role that Americans and Chinese outside of central government played in the Sino-American relationship in the 1970s.  

FRIEDMAN: Let’s start with a definition of terms, because terms like cultural diplomacy, cultural exchange, you also use the word exchange diplomacy. Talk to us a little bit so that we define terms before you go further.  

MILLWOOD: Yes, of course. I think it’s important to get these terms right. And I use some of them quite particularly. I think many other people have used the term cultural diplomacy to sort of encompass all these types of exchange contacts. But I declined to do so perhaps just for a practical reason, which is that the types of exchanges I look at include many that perhaps are more obviously cultural in, say, the performing arts or, you know, other forms of explicitly cultural exchange.  

But I also look at scientific contacts in athletics exchanges and so forth. So rather than use the term cultural diplomacy to talk about these contacts, I instead use this term exchange diplomacy. And I think exchange diplomacy for me encompasses all these different types of cultural diplomacy and scientific exchange as well. And it also draws attention to the fact that this diplomacy is not just about exchanges of culture, but also having this political significance that connects with the overall relationship.  

And there was a diplomacy that was conducted, you know, at the ground level between individual Chinese and Americans who were encountering one another in the United States, in China. But there was also many, many forms of diplomacy that were conducted at other levels, say, between Henry Kissinger and Zhou Enlai, who also negotiated these exchange contacts.  

And then finally, a word on the people-to-people diplomacy. This is a historical term that was preferred by the Chinese. It comes from the Chinese term 民间外交 (mínjiān wàijiāo) or 民间关系 (mínjiān guānxi) as well. And the Chinese government in the 1970s liked to say that these types of contacts were people-to-people that they didn’t involve either government. But I think the reality has, as other people have argued before me, but I argue in the book, is that the Chinese state was very interested in these contacts and had a close role in contacts between China and the United States.  

So, I think calling all of these contacts people-to-people diplomacy is somewhat misleading. So, I use that term specifically to refer to instances in which the Chinese government is reaching out to American society or to other societies, because I think in historical terms, that that’s the precise meaning of that term.  

FRIEDMAN: Thank you. So, diving in. Many people are familiar with ping pong diplomacy and with some of the stories. And it’s thrilling to hear you talk about the resources that you uncovered about this other story. What were surprises that you found? Because I would imagine from the research that’s mostly available, we have a certain perception of how some of these exchanges came to be and what happened.  

So, in researching and writing this book, what really surprised you and what do you think will surprise readers when they dive in?  

MILLWOOD: Thanks. That’s a that’s a great question. And what’s surprising in the book, maybe I’ll mention a couple of things.  

Maybe one thing about ping pong diplomacy and then maybe a broader point. So firstly, in terms of ping pong diplomacy, I think one of the surprises of this episode is the involvement of the Chinese state in ping pong diplomacy, in particular in the first episode of ping pong diplomacy that began with the American team meeting the Chinese team in Nagoya at the Table Tennis World Championships in 1971. This is a tale that’s well known, is particularly well known for an episode in which Glenn Cohen met the Chinese, an American table tennis player, met the Chinese team captain Zhang Zedong, the leader of the Chinese delegation, on a bus. They exchanged gifts and this was sort of, as reporters at the time told it, sort of the beginning of this episode and a spontaneous interaction between the two sides.  

But what I and several other historians before me, Xu Guoqi, my colleague at HKU among them, have shown is that the Chinese state at least was involved in the planning of the contact of this interaction. Now they couldn’t tell Zhang Zedong exactly what to do once he got to Nagoya. But the idea that the Chinese team would interact with the Americans and the possibly of the American team being invited to China was something that was discussed in the Foreign Ministry. It was discussed at the highest level involving Zhou Enlai and Mao Zedong as well. And that was therefore this sort of concerted effort to reach out to the Americans through ping pong.  

More broadly, I think something that surprised me when I first began the project was how much both the American government and the Chinese government was interested in these contacts. I was researching another project in U.S. government archives, and before I began this project and when I was using records from people like Henry Kissinger or Zbigniew Brzezinski, Jimmy Carter’s National Security Advisor, I saw voluminous records about their interest in people-to-people exchanges. As I said earlier, the historiography did not talk about this, that very much. So, I was somewhat surprised to find that people like Kissinger, people like Brzezinski and some of their leading advisers were so interested and so, so closely involved in these exchanges. That isn’t to say that they necessarily controlled all of them, but they certainly had this interest in these exchanges.  

And I think that was one of the early moments that alerted me to the importance of these exchanges and of these contacts to the overall diplomatic relationship and how contacts between ordinary Chinese, ordinary Americans in both countries had a real significance in the overall diplomatic relationship between the U.S. and China in the 1970s.  

FRIEDMAN: You put that continuum really well. You talk about connection and continuum between government and individual exchange visits were naturally enough shaped by developments in high level diplomacy. But in turn, exchanges also influence relations between the two governments. These two tracks of diplomacy were, as your book reveals, deeply connected and mutually constitutive.  

Can you talk a little bit more about how the non-governmental side did then in turn influence the higher-level diplomatic negotiations that were going on at that time? And adding to that, has it continued today? Has it continued to drive that from what was set up in those early relations 50 years ago to set us on the path that we find ourselves?  

MILLWOOD: Thanks for that question and for that, I think quite … quotation from the book. So maybe I’ll mention a couple of moments. The first is the is the ping pong diplomacy episode, you know, is the term episode because there were two legs. This is perhaps another surprise as well. A lot of attention is being paid to that first interaction in Japan and then the American team’s visit to China.  

But the National Committee, of course, was the host of a return leg of ping pong diplomacy that took place in 1972. It was the first official delegation from the PRC with representatives from the PRC to the United States. And I think this is the first important moment in which these exchanges helped move the relationship forward. The first episode of ping pong diplomacy in March and April 1971 predates Henry Kissinger’s secret visit to China and helped, I think, precipitate that.  

That visit and the breakthrough in secret negotiations between Kissinger, Nixon and Chinese and the Chinese leaders. And then the second moment in ping pong diplomacy helps to further confirm a sort of broader opening between U.S. and Chinese societies. Soon after, the Nixon visit takes place in April 1972, so just two months after the Nixon summit, the influence of exchange contacts on high level diplomacy continues throughout the 1970s, I think.  

And I might mention the role of scientific exchanges in the mid to late 1970s as another time in which these non-governmental exchange contacts shaped the diplomatic relationship. In the mid 1970s, a high-level diplomatic relationship had come to something like a standstill, and there had been really a decline in the diplomatic relationship. But one area of the relationship that continued to expand in spite of a somewhat acrimonious diplomatic relationship was the scientific relationship.  

And China particularly, but not exclusively after Mao’s death in 1976, in September 1976, showed great interest in benefiting from scientific exchanges with the United States, the non-governmental organization, the U.S. non-governmental organization that was that was foremost in organizing these scientific exchanges was the Committee on Scholarly Communication with the PRC (CSCPRC) and the CCP policy, which doesn’t which no longer exists, but was very influential, very important, I think, in the 1970s, made the case in the mid to late 1970s that this deep Chinese interest in scientific exchange provided leverage to the American side, both at a non-governmental level and ultimately at a governmental level to push the relationship forward.  

When Jimmy Carter came to office, the chairman of the CSCPRC, Frank Press, was recruited into the Carter government and helped bring this thinking into the White House and into the U.S. government strategy towards the Chinese. And in 1977 and 1978, the CSCPRC and the Carter administration, successfully, I hope, I show in the book, leverage those scientific contacts to get a diplomatic normalization deal which led to the mutual recognition between the PRC and the United States, agreed in December 1978 and then formally enacted in January of 1979.  

So, I think those are two important moments in the 1970s and certainly I think that these types of contacts continue to have an importance today. I think there were less often the kind of large breakthroughs or sort of immediate breakthroughs that we see in the 1970s today, because, you know, you can’t have the first ping pong diplomacy after so many years of deep contact between the two sides.  

But I do think at the same time, the condition of exchange contacts or broader contacts between the two societies helps create the context in which the diplomatic relationship takes place. And I think one proof of this that we can see is the consequences of COVID in the last three years or so in which contacts between American and Chinese society have been reduced to a very low, I think, artificially low level.  

And I think this has provided one of the reasons for the decline in the overall U.S.-China relationship and the relationship between the two governments, because there isn’t that buoyancy from the exchange relationship, from the people-to-people societal relationship to offset some of the tensions in the governmental relationship.  

FRIEDMAN: Well, that’s a powerful assessment. And certainly one that I hope we can rebuild now that COVID is entering this different phase that we’re in. But skipping to lessons learned and what does it mean for us today? There are so many more avenues of engagement now today with China, as you mentioned, it’s very different than the ping pong was the first moment of interaction after decades of isolation.  

Well, now, even with the Great Firewall of China, there are so many online options for interaction. International students coming. There’s just a broader variety of avenues. So, what is the role of exchange diplomacy and how can we rebuild coming out of COVID, given what you’ve seen from the positive aspects of how it helps rebuild those government level diplomacy and where it’s broken down without those more people-to-people level engagement?  

MILLWOOD: It’s a very good question, and I think it’s a very important question. I’m not sure there’s a simple answer to this. I think exchange contacts and contacts between Americans, Americans and Chinese have a vast diversity, a vast variety, particularly now, or at least particularly before 2020, when the relationship is much sicker. It’s much more varied.  

So, I don’t think there’s a simple answer to what exchanges do for the relationship, but I do think that they help to provide a sense of understanding between the two sides. That doesn’t necessarily mean that exchanges help us help Americans or help Chinese to become more like one another or necessarily to agree about that their values or their perspectives.  

But I do think it provides these, people-to-people interactions provide insights into how the other side sees the United States, sees China, but also sees the world more broadly. And that helps us contextualize actions taken by, say, the Chinese government or by the American government or the condition of each of American and Chinese societies as well. So, I think that’s the thing that we’ve been missing during COVID, having that having that understanding that grows out of direct individual interactions.  

FRIEDMAN: I think you phrase that, well, the contextualization is so crucial. For a very simplistic analogy, it’s not having a tone of voice in a text message. And similarly, when certain actions take place and you don’t have the broader context of from where they came, they can be misinterpreted on both sides related to this and sort of lessons learned.  

Your book does not paint a fully rosy picture that Oh, yes, it’s so simple. Exchange diplomacy is effective and we all become a kumbaya, happy world. You very much show that often it has negative effects if done in certain less effective ways to reinforce stereotypes or to feed narratives of societal superiority on both sides.  

So, speak a little bit about the downside of how some of these exchanges in the early period have had effect. And do you see echoes again today where simply doing the exchange isn’t enough? It’s really how you do it that has the positive connectivity between the two sides, the two countries?  

MILLWOOD: Absolutely. Absolutely. So, thank you for highlighting that, because I think you’re absolutely right that I not that the history of the 1970s and the history of Sino-American interactions in the 1970 is not simply the story of the recovery of the relationship and simply positivity. There were many positive breakthroughs, but there were also many times of fractious conflict or of misunderstanding and of stereotypes being fueled. And I think sometimes the direct interactions could allow a greater confidence in the stereotypes and misunderstandings. It’s hard to say exactly when exchanges worked well and when they worked less well.  

But I think one lesson from the 1970s is that often the most choreographed, most carefully controlled exchanges were less successful in encouraging genuine understanding and the less structured, more organic interaction, that sometimes happened during the same visit, but that were at other moments during that visit, they were the times in which there was genuine empathy between the two sides and in which were often, after the fact, looked back on as the most valuable aspects of exchanges. Often American visitors to China or Chinese visitors to the United States talked more about, I don’t know, the way that they spoke to their American colleagues or Chinese colleagues on the bus, taking them between destinations, or, you know, quiet meals in family homes than they did say, you know, the welcome banquet or the most prominent structured moments of those exchanges.  

So, I think maybe the lesson there is that when we have these types of contacts, they should allow for mundane interactions between the two sides that allow for the sort of reality of the differences and similarities between American and Chinese people to come to the fore and therefore sort of to bring this empathy.  

FRIEDMAN: I think that’s vital. That’s where the veneer gets to fall away and we see what is actually human behind that veneer. You write quite a bit in the book about Deng Xiaoping’s eagerness to develop China in science and technology. Now, at the time, tech sales to communist countries, particularly the Soviet Union and China, were restricted by export controls.  

So, looking back, what’s your take on the U.S. decision to agree to extensive exchanges in scientific and technology fields? Was that a smart decision? Was that a mistake? Tell us about your thoughts.  

MILLWOOD: I think there’s a few things to say about this. Firstly, there were many benefits to both sides that came out of these scientific exchanges. It wasn’t simply the case that China was given access to American knowledge and American technology for free. Instead, there were many things that American scientists, American social scientists, but also natural scientists wanted from the Chinese side.  

For example, access to China to gather data there or to conduct interviews there, in the case of social scientists. And there were also benefits that the American side got from helping the development of Chinese science. The Jimmy Carter administration, for example, was very interested in relieving the energy crisis that plagued Carter’s America and therefore allowing China to upgrade its ability to, for example, extract oil, and, you know, perhaps this had other consequences at this point in time, but, you know, to develop its energy resources, there were perceived benefits. And then, well, I think genuine benefits that the American side gained from this.  

But I think the most important point I’d make is that there were many discussions about this in the 1970s and scientists, but also officials, American scientists, American officials were quite conscious that the Chinese side would benefit significantly from access to American knowledge. This was not a failure of imagination. At the time of normalization. People like Mike Oxenberg, who was one of the top China, perhaps the top China advisor in the Carter administration, was very conscious that allowing unfettered Chinese access to American knowledge would lead to very rapid Chinese development of the type that we see now.  

What Americans decided in the 1970s was that they would seek a broad reciprocity. America was so far ahead in scientific knowledge that there couldn’t be a sort of a like for like replacement of what Chinese scientists gained from visiting and working with American scientists and what Americans could gain from working with Chinese scientists.  

But as I mentioned already, there were things the Chinese side kicked off that they could offer access, access to China. They could offer access to Chinese expertise. And ultimately, many exceptionally talented Chinese students and Chinese scientists worked in American institutions and contributed to the production of American science in the United States. And therefore, the deal that was made in the late 1970s and throughout the 1970s really to allow these transfers of knowledge and also, of course, of technology was one that the United States went into with eyes open. This was not something in which the Chinese tricked the United States, and Americans only thought later about the consequences of this. Americans thought about the consequences of this in the 1970s. They may have made a mistake, but they certainly didn’t do so from the point of view of a lack of information or imagination.  

FRIEDMAN: Right. And a follow up question to that. What sort of similarities do you see to export controls on textiles to China today? Are there any lessons in 2023 from the 70s that leadership can—to be gleaned from past experience?  

MILLWOOD: Yes, a very good question as to on export controls and the book is not particularly about export controls. It only comes up a few moments. And though this is an area in which historical scholarship is developing at the moment, people like John Krige worked quite a lot on this, Mario Daniels as well, including but not particularly the example of China.  

And I think one of the lessons that we might think about in terms of export controls now that was thought about in the 1970s but only was beginning to emerge in that decade is controlling knowledge and knowhow as well as access to technology as such. It’s one thing to prevent or try to control Chinese access to technology that already exists in the world.  

But access to American knowhow is the ability to develop that technology later. And I think this is something that the American governments and many people in the United States are thinking, thinking very carefully about now. So I’m not saying that this is not something that anyone is thinking about, but I think perhaps one of the key lessons from the 1970s is it’s not just about physical technology.  

It’s also about the experiences of using and developing technology that allow countries like China and the Soviet Union to develop their own their own technology, because, of course, innovation is now the objective of the PRC is not simply about buying American technology, it’s also about developing Chinese technology.  

FRIEDMAN: So I would love to focus a bit on Philadelphia Orchestra as a highlight, partially for selfish reasons, because they are celebrating their 50th anniversary of this trip to China next year or this year in 2023. And we’re bringing Philadelphia Orchestra here to UNC Chapel Hill for concerts in celebration of that anniversary, but at the same time to facilitate conversations about the complexity around these exchanges.  

It’s not always simple and positive. It has to be done in a certain way that these true exchange and understanding is built as opposed to showmanship or things that look nice in fundraising copy that don’t actually have the impacts that we intend. So talk a little bit about 50 years ago, what precipitated that first tour? What were some of the wins and what were some lessons learned? Because not everything went smoothly.  

MILLWOOD: Yes, it’s a great a great highlight, great episode. I think in the book and a really fascinating cultural exchange. And I’m so glad that it’s being commemorated and continued to be to be thought about now. So it took place in September 1973. It was a big exchange. More than 130 people went to China as part of the delegation, more than 100 performers, and Eugene Ormandy, the famous Hungarian American conductor, led the delegation.  

It came partially out of Richard Nixon’s own interest in the Philadelphia Orchestra. He’d had them play his inauguration. He thought they were an excellent example of American culture. And therefore, he and Kissinger were involved in personally suggesting this is a possible exchange to the Chinese side. And as you say, it was both a very successful exchange, but also one that had some tension, at least within it.  

Many of the members, including Ormandy, reflected on it as a real highlight in their career. And I think perhaps the aspect of the exchange that I would draw particular attention to as a success is that it was a true cultural exchange. The Americans that went to China, they also studied Chinese instruments, they studied, for example, the Chinese flute, the dizi, and mastered that instrument enough that at least one of the members of the Philadelphia Orchestra performed using the Chinese instrument back in the United States. So they were genuinely learning from one another and from their peers in China and these colleagues as musicians in in China.  

But as you say, there were also disruptions. One particular source of tension was control over the program and in particular Jiang Qing who was Mao’s wife and a member of what later came to be known as the Gang of Four of radical leftists in the Chinese leadership, had been heavily involved in the Cultural Revolution and the cultural aspects of the Cultural Revolution.  

Not least she, perhaps, in some contrast to her role, renovating and signing sizing and revolutionizing Chinese culture during the Cultural Revolution, had an interest in hearing Beethoven’s Six Symphony. She really liked Western classical music, and in spite of Ormandy not particularly liking it, liking that symphony, she insisted that they perform it. And even though the orchestra didn’t have the scores for the symphony, they were sourced within China. And ultimately it was performed as the Chinese side requested.  

And as you mentioned, Alison, I think another aspect of this is the long-term relationship between the Philadelphia Orchestra and China that grew out of this. The Philadelphia Orchestra went back to China in the 1990s and in the 2000 and before COVID was visiting China pass on every year, but on a pretty regular basis. And therefore, this was not simply a one-off exchange. It was very important in the 1970s, but it also helped build professional connections, cultural connections between the two sides that continued into the future.  

FRIEDMAN: Absolutely. And continued on a direct link between artists and cultural institutions that were able to pick it up. And I know it’s expanded and continued. The New York Philharmonic a number of years ago was able to set up one of the first residency programs in China and exchanges. And in some ways, COVID with Zoom has allowed those on a very personal granular level to continue.  

But everyone’s anxious to get the bodies back live in the spaces. Well, thank you. This has been wonderful. And it’s such a rich, tremendous book. There’s much more to talk about, but we will hopefully leave people wanting more as you do in a good performance, so they will need to read your book. In closing, if there’s one message that people get from your book, what do you hope that that is?  

MILLWOOD: I think maybe I go back to the point that you began with that these contacts, these exchanges are not simply important for their own sake. I think they are important for their own sake and for many different reasons that they have significance in and of themselves. But I think they also have this added significance that they can influence a diplomatic relationship and they can change the overall relationship between the two sides.  

And I hope that the example of the 1970s offers at least some encouragement that at this time of tension and conflict in the Sino-American relationship, that there remains hope for rebuilding some level of understanding between the two sides. The 1970s followed two decades of very serious confrontation between the United States and China. And yet the relationship recovered and was rebuilt relatively quickly in the in the 1970s, partially through these exchange contacts. That took hard work, but I think it is possible again, and I hope there are there are continued opportunities for Americans and Chinese to get to know each other through things like cultural exchange.  

FRIEDMAN: The arts, athletics and science. It’s the way to rebuild back. Thank you so much.  

MILLWOOD: Thank you. Thank you.