That iPhone in your pocket, it started with ping-pong.


Flip it over. What’s it say on the back? Manufactured in China.

Back in 1971 about the only things being manufactured in China were copies of Mao’s Little Red Book and blood hatred for the United States Imperialists.

This was the era when the chairman famously declared that Chinese Communists needn’t fear nuclear war because, when the dust settled, there would be more Chinese left crawling out of the ashes than Americans.

It goes without saying they weren’t assembling iPhones in Zhengzhou in those days.

Then an American ping-pong player missed the bus.

It was at the World Table Tennis Championships in Nagoya, Japan. Glen Cowan was getting in a little extra practice when the U.S. team bus left without him. A member of the Chinese team that dominated the sport had been practicing with Cowan and impulsively offered him a ride with him and his teammates.

To say the least, the Red Guard would not have approved.

Neither, it is safe to say, would have the U.S. State Department.

Press photographers snapped pictures of the two athletes getting off the bus; an informal invitation to visit ensued, and the Great Wall came a-tumblin’ down.

Skip ahead 47 years.

Nearly one-fifth of all goods imported into the Unites States come from China. In 2016, more than 1.66 million Americans traveled to China; more than 2.17 million Chinese visited us here.

On Friday, as South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Kim Yo Jong, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s sister, watched from the stands, athletes from North and South Korea entered the Olympic Stadium at Pyeongchang under a banner featuring the blue image of a united Korean peninsula.

Déjà vu all over again?

Let’s be clear, I don’t put a lot of stock in the Olympics. Truth be told, I didn’t watch the opening ceremony and couldn’t tell you who this go-around’s celebrities du jour might be. I began losing interest in the quadrennial spectacle several Olympiads ago when coverage shifted from competition among the world’s most gifted athletes to World Wrestling Federation-style storylines that turned competitors into soap opera stars with a blatant focus on all-Americans, all of the time.

And I know full well that sport rarely trumps politics. Jesse Owens in 1936 didn’t prevent Munich in 1938, much less the Holocaust that was to follow. The 1972 Munich games will forever be remembered for Black September rather than gold medals, and there was blood in the water when the Hungarians and Soviets met in a gold medal water polo match only a month after Soviet tanks rolled into Budapest to crush the 1956 Hungarian uprising.

Still, I have an iPhone in my pocket.

In April 1971, all it took was a ping-pong paddle to move the world just a little bit. That little bit turned out to be just enough to set in motion a change in relations that no one in Beijing, Moscow, Washington or anywhere else dared, hoped or feared to imagine.

On Friday two athletes, one representing a bloody-handed totalitarian tyranny and the other a craven running-dog imperialist puppet, clasped hands on a single flag pole and shoulder to shoulder, circled the playing field. For the moment, clenched fists gave way to open-handed gestures of friendship and threats of nuclear fire were forgotten.

I’ll acknowledge the skeptics. The rancor runs deep on both sides — but no deeper than the hate-filled chants of the Red Guard mob and the carefully orchestrated American response to the Red Menace that preceded Nixon and Zhou Enlai offering toasts in the Great Hall of the People. The door to peace was open but a crack. We dared step through.

Do we still have that kind of courage?

Would you bet your iPhone on it?

Jerome Christenson is a former reporter, columnist and editor at the Winona Daily News. He can be reached at


(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.

We hope you have enjoyed your complimentary access for the month.

Now it's time to activate or sign up for unlimited access!

Thank you for signing up!

We have not been able to find your subscription.

Current Subscriber?

Current Subscriber?


Don't have a subscription?