What do you do when you are the subject of nuclear threats, you don’t have the Bomb, and you can’t match up in planes, tanks, and ships? Mao’s answer was people’s war. And ping-pong. And fifteen years after gaining power, nuclear weapons.
Before demonstrating China’s ability to produce atomic weapons, Mao dismissed the Bomb as a “paper tiger which the US reactionaries use to scare people.” In the global contest between “reactionaries” and “revolutionaries,” China could not show “the slightest timidity before a wild beast.”
On January 28, 1955, Mao offered these remarks when the first Finnish Ambassador to China presented his credentials:
The Chinese people are not to be cowed by U.S. atomic blackmail. Our country has a population of 600 million and an area of 9,600,000 square kilometers. The United States cannot annihilate the Chinese nation with its small stack of atom bombs. Even if the U.S. atom bombs were so powerful that, when dropped on China, they would make a hole right through the earth, or even blow it up, that would hardly mean anything to the universe as a whole, though it might be a major event for the solar system.
We have an expression, millet plus rifles. In the case of the United States, it is planes plus the A-bomb. However, if the United States with its planes plus the A-bomb is to launch a war of aggression against China, then China with its millet plus rifles is sure to emerge the victor. The people of the whole world will support us.
China produced world champion ping-pong players, a sport that helped thaw relations between Washington and Beijing. After a Chinese player won the world championship in 1959, Mao’s message of congratulations referred to ping-pong as China’s “spiritual nuclear weapon.” I learned of this gem from a book review of Nicholas Griffin’s Ping-Pong Diplomacy.
At that time, Chinese physicists were working on denser materials to develop non-spiritual deterrence. When they succeeded, Beijing issued a statement defending its decision as necessary to “oppose the US imperialist policy of nuclear blackmail and nuclear threats.” The following day, Premier Zhou Enlai announced China’s policy of no first use.
For aspiring wonks who want to know more: check out John Wilson Lewis and Xue Litai’s book, China Builds the Bomb.