How to Hide a Famine with Ping-Pong

At the height of the Great Famine, China hosted the World Championships of ping-pong and managed to hide the deaths of nearly 44 million even with the eyes of the world on them. An excerpt from Nicholas Griffin’s Ping-Pong Diplomacy.

Stephen Shaver/AFP/Getty

The preparations had been thorough. In 1961, they had to be. In the last throes of the greatest famine on record, China was about to host its first ever World Championships. There would be journalists arriving alongside the athletes and officials. Somehow, China had to make sure the fact that up to 44 million people had died in the last three years remained an internal secret. And the sport chosen to cover such devastation was ping pong.

One man had ensured that the Chinese were hosting the Championships at their time of need, even helping arrange the journalists’ visas. The Chairman of the International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) was called the Honorable Ivor Montagu. An English aristocrat, producer of five films by Alfred Hitchcock, he’d also codified the game of table tennis. Since founding the International Federation back in 1926 he had ruled over it ever since. Unknown to all, even to his family, he’d also spied for the Soviet Union throughout the Second World War and been an active member of the subversive ‘Comintern’ since he was 21. Ping-Pong, he’d reckoned, was one more way of moving communistic ideas across international borders. The incredible test of this theory was still ten years away, when the Chinese would choose his game of ping pong to reach out to Nixon’s America, but now, in 1961 it faced its first vital moment.

Montagu and the Chinese had carefully chosen the recipients of the journalistic visas. There were a few requirements for the newsmen; an inability to speak Chinese, no desire to arrive before the tournament or remain after it ended, and the willingness to be accompanied at all times by their interpreters.

Mao’s five year plan to industrialize his country and catch up with Great Britain’s steel production and American agricultural production was known as ‘The Great Leap Forward’. It had been a disaster, diverting farmers from the land, draining their grain supplies and ultimately starving millions. If industry and agriculture were intended to be the meat and bones of the Great Leap Forward, then sport was going to be New China’s muscle tone. While other countries regarded ping pong as a sporting after-thought, the Chinese were about to make it their centerpiece. Why not? With Montagu in charge, they were guaranteed favorable treatment.

Yet even Ivor Montagu couldn’t guarantee victory in 1961. There was no point in spending a fortune on the tournament if it couldn’t be used as valuable propaganda. The Chinese had spent heavily on the ping pong program; one of the very few places in the vast country where the famine could not touch. The team lived in a bubble, driven hard but fed well, while their countrymen perished. At a time when even Premier Zhou Enlai was reduced to drinking teas made from nettles, the Ministry of Sport and Physical Culture sent its shooting team into Mongolia to return with meat for the precious athletes.

And even then, when years of strategic planning, months of training seemed to have produced a fearsome squad, they were reduced to sheer panic just a week before the tournament was due to start. Their greatest rivals, the Japanese, were said to have invented a new serve. Off went the world’s first ping pong spy to attend a tournament in Hong Kong, entering the imperialist colony in the hope of revealing Japan’s secret.

Finally, in April of 1961, the opening ceremony began. “It was like Cirque du Soleil … unbelievable. I’d never seen anything like it,” remembered New Zealand player Murray Dunn. “It was that spectacular and it went on for an hour or two… a mass display of gymnastics and dancing and tumbling.” Zhou Enlai was spotted sitting on the rostrum next to Ivor Montagu, “who looked like the cat who ate the canary,” undoubtedly “the man of the moment.”

While he’d already dined with the premier and Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing, Montagu had done his best to ignore all overtures from Britain’s Beijing Liaison Office, reluctantly attending a single tea with the English team. The head of the liaison office dismissed Montagu. “He struck me as being something of a drawing-room Communist and I doubt whether he had talks of any importance with the Chinese.”

Montagu had also been welcomed the night before at a vast banquet by Marshal He Long, a revolutionary general once in change of hundreds of thousands of troops, now overseeing the ping pong team. His remarks were in lockstep with Montagu’s own view of sport. Table tennis players, said He Long, were about to make “due contribution to the strengthening of the solidarity of the peoples of all countries and to the defense of world peace.” No one was there to simply entertain.

When the games finally got under way, there was no holding back the crowd’s enthusiasm. The Chinese team, prepped, fed, and polished, was hungry for victory. Playing a first round match against the Cubans, their fellow Communists, the Chinese players began ruthlessly: twenty-one to zero, twenty-one to one, twenty-one to zero. The Chinese public had waited so long for their Ping-Pong Spring that they bellowed constant approval of the rout. Halfway through the game, a message came over the loudspeakers. Be careful, it advised, your reaction could be misconceived as inhospitable. Could you please begin to cheer both teams evenly?

“Had they done that in Europe, the audience would have got even worse.” But this was China. “All the cheering stopped; it changed completely.” The Cubans won a grand total of four points in the remaining games. The crowd applauded each of them.

The journalists wandered the halls of the stadium in between games, marveling at the contrast of its modernity compared to the “lowly, grey tiled resting places” in Beijing “where 7,000,000 lay their heads.” Every single reporter noted how “desperately proud” China was of “her new role.” “There is no austerity in the stadium. The restaurants are doing booming business with Chinese champagne, which tastes rather like bubbly brandy… you can eat anything from bird’s nest soup to shark fins and the Peking ducks.” The Ping-Pong stadium was a tiny isolated bubble of bounty in the middle of a country shocked into silence.

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The first time the New Zealanders played, Murray Dunn looked up into the stands and was amazed at the uniformity of it all. Staring at the chanting crowd of twenty thousand, he realized that “everybody, and I mean everybody, wore… blue denim.” Everyone had the same short hair. “It was hard to tell the difference between a man and a woman, quite frankly.” The reporter from the Express went further. The women reminded him “of British Railway engine drivers.”

Unbelievably, as Dunn finished off his game and headed past the wooden barricades that separated the tables from the stands, he heard his name called from the crowd. It was a Kiwi accent. “G’day Murray!” He looked up into the blue sea and scoured the faces. A hand waved. Almost unrecognizable under his blue denim cap was an old friend from school, “a bright fellow” named York Young, the New Zealand son of Chinese immigrants. He had returned after the revolution, one of thousands of optimists who had wanted to help in the Great Leap Forward. Young rushed down to meet Dunn beside the barricades, but immediately his interpreter pushed forward until she was between the two men. She took Young by the arm and “grilled him for ten minutes” then pulled Dunn aside “to make sure the stories coincided.”

With the interpreter now standing between the school friends, Dunn didn’t know what to say. “I said something silly like ‘we’ll have to have a coffee.’” Young just looked at Dunn and said, “We can’t talk again. We’re not going to be allowed to talk again.” He turned and merged sadly back into the blue-clad crowd. Another small opportunity for open conversation had been lost. “That was the last I ever heard of him,” said Dunn.

Thanks to Montagu’s willful ignorance, the Chinese had pushed the laws of the game to the limits. The host country was legally allowed to invite extra players into the tournament. The Polish were the largest traveling contingent, with eleven players. The Chinese had seventy. Their strength was extraordinary, and the inevitable soon happened in the singles competitions: Chinese were drawn against Chinese. The players would then further bend the rules by playing their games slowly, waiting to see who would win the game that would provide their next competitor. There was no direct translation in China for the British sense of fair play that went hand in hand with sport. Sports were political, they were simply serving one aim: victory for Communism. Depending on which type of player was best matched, the other Chinese player would throw the game.

In case there were any doubts as to the politics of the sport, the biggest news of the decade was announced to the Chinese public not in the People’s Daily but in the middle of the Workers’ Gymnasium. All the lights were turned up; the New Zealanders’ big match was suddenly brought to a halt. A huge victory for Communism was announced. Russia’s Yuri Gagarin had orbited the earth and returned. A Communist was the first man in the history of the world to leave the planet. The Soviet team was brought out to take a bow. Russia’s top young star, Gennady Averin, made a sweet speech: “Even though Major Gagarin in his spaceship Vostok has not won a table tennis title, his name is known all over the world.” Laughter swept the stadium. The New Zealand squad, standing to one side alongside their proud translator, tapped her on her shoulder. “When are we going to have our table back?” they asked.

In the men’s team competition, the Swaythling Cup, it soon became obvious that the gold medal clash was going to be the grudge match that the Chinese team had prepared for: Japan against China. It was Japan’s chance to create history. Victory would mean they were the only team in the world that had won six straight championships. All the Chinese efforts to use the tournament as a propaganda push could suddenly be transformed into an alternate worldview. Japan could emerge as the nation that dominated Asia, even when playing in the capital of the old enemy.

China’s only champion, Rong Guotuan faltered when victory seemed close for the men’s team. The noise in the stadium grew for every point he won, but the points he lost were greeted with shrill, desperate screams. Rong Guotuan looked distinctly worried. To the consternation of the crowd, he couldn’t find a way back. The Japanese won, forcing another game.

For the Chinese, with their world champion beaten, the stadium’s hopes would be carried by a local teenager, a handsome, bowlegged boy named Zhuang Zedong. He had been born in a mazelike Beijing hutong, or alley. Without money for a table, he’d hit balls against a wall in his own home. His mother didn’t worry about it until he grew strong enough to break his first window with a Ping-Pong ball. From then on, she’d encourage her Tiger Cub to run to school an hour early to hit before class.

Zhuang was utterly fearless, with the same height and the same extraordinarily developed legs as Japan’s own champion, Ichiro Ogimura, but seven years younger. He walked out to face the Japanese to a home crowd’s vigorous applause, a mixture of encouragement and appalling expectation.

Of all the countries in the world that harbored deep-seated resentments against Japan, none had as much reason as China, which had suffered fifteen years of brutal occupation. The Rape of Nanking alone had seen three hundred thousand casualties. Photographs of the humiliated dead—the rows of Chinese heads lining the city streets and the women impaled on bamboo poles—were seared into the Chinese collective memory. The government said the 1961 World Championships were friendly, but the crowd of twenty thousand Chinese was frantic for victory. One of Zhuang’s teammates remembered looking up into the stands just before the game against Japan started and being amazed at the number of old faces that stared back. “These were people who didn’t know a thing about table tennis. What they understood was that this was a grudge match.”

It must have been deeply discomforting to Zhou Enlai. He had made a special effort to greet the Japanese players personally—not because he believed in overextending the hand of peace, but as a signal to Tokyo. China had no fleet worth speaking of and was desperate to begin to charter as many Japanese ships as possible to import food.

Ogimura and Zhuang Zedong were tied at two to two. Ivor Montagu sat in the stands next to the Chinese premier. The stadium, now crammed past capacity, was “a sweat pit.” Ogimura waved his hand in the air, calling a temporary stop to play, unable to think in the clamor. The whole stadium was shaking with so much noise that the Japanese coach complained to the officials. Another plea went out across the “big brother loud-speaker” but this time the noise didn’t abate. Ogimura opted to continue. “When Japan scored a point there were moans and a long wailing cry of E-yay.” But Ogimura didn’t score many more points against Zhuang Zedong, the hometown teenager. He was utterly humiliated.

The fastest man in table tennis, so sharp that the Chinese had nicknamed him The Brain, looked like he was wearing stone sneakers. Zhuang knew that “every shot against the Japanese players was revenge for the Chinese [who had suffered the Japanese invasion].”

The final game ended twenty-one to thirteen to Zhuang Zedong. The Japanese team then folded, allowing Rong Guotuan quickly to dispose of his last opponent. When the final point was over, the whole stadium rose. “Hats and scarves and gloves were thrown into the air.” It was a freezing, windy April day, but not a soul cared. “It was genuine happiness.” “China was champion of the world. This arena broke apart like a huge Ming bowl, done in pastel shades. The normal fixed smile of the Chinese shone like a new moon as they cheered, clapped and danced and the team hugged and kissed like English Soccer players.”

Somewhere in the control room, a technician flashed the stadium’s lights on and off, on and off, as the Chinese players stood in a row applauding their fans. The stadium shook. “China! China! China!” The chant rang hardest inside the stadium, then out the doors and through the gathering crowd. It could be heard echoing around every radio set in Beijing.

After the stadium emptied, the workers walked through the empty stands in silence. They filled bag after bag with the hats, scarves, and gloves that, in a time of so few personal possessions, had been thrown freely in the air. Throughout the night, the city reverberated to the banging of drums and the crack and whine of fireworks. The scenes were repeated as Chinese hope Qiu Zhonghui won the women’s singles and then again as Zhuang beat a young rival in the men’s final. The only moment the applause was equaled was when Chairman Mao was spotted inside the stadium. “He got a huge reception,” remembered a player. “Everyone stood up to clap in his honor, including Mao himself.”

In order to obscure the harshness of the crowd’s reaction in the final, the only team Zhou Enlai hosted a good-bye party for were the Japanese, most likely thinking of his shipping needs. Before departing, the ITTF delegates met one more time, and President Montagu was “reelected without any other nominations.” He’d stood and congratulated “China’s fledglings” such as Zhuang Zedong, who had showed “themselves to be daring, willing to learn, modest in victory and undaunted in defeat”—although they hadn’t needed to be undaunted in defeat. At long last, China had seen nothing but success.

From any sporting standard, the Beijing World Championships were a stunning accomplishment. Normally an international sporting event such as the Olympics is aimed as a show of strength to the rest of the world. The 1961 World Championships were even more important as a domestic statement because they implied that the sacrifices made had been worth it. The Great Leap Forward had driven the country to the edge of a shattering rift, but the lie had held: progress was being made. There were many, like the head of the British Mission, who shrugged off the World Championships as “a not entirely negligible fillip to the regime.” That was missing the bigger point. Propaganda is often about hiding, not making news. The death of somewhere between 17 and 45 million Chinese remained an internal secret. Absurdly, Ping-Pong had played its part.