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“We are ready to continue our cooperation with the United States on panda conservation, and do our best to meet the wishes of the Californians.” —Xi Jinping during this week’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference
Last week was a sad week for American panda lovers. Crowds bid teary farewells to the last three pandas at the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington, D.C., before they were flown back to China. The pandas’ departure marked the end of a 50-year era in which panda bears lived, iconically, in the nation’s capital. Considering the rather frosty relations between the U.S. and China, many people worried that their send-off might foreshadow a future with no pandas in the U.S.
Now, a mere seven days later, China’s President Xi Jinping has signaled that China may send some more of the fluffy cuties our way. Oh joyous day!
The statement of continued cooperation on pandas came during a conference this week in San Francisco, in which Xi and President Joe Biden met one-on-one for the first time in a year. Their conversations will be consequential for U.S.-China relations, which have been kind of rocky over the past year. The talk of pandas, then, might seem like small potatoes. But Xi’s willingness to consider sending more furry ambassadors to the U.S. gives us a peek into how the discussions are going, especially since Xi started talking pandas shortly after he finished up extensive one-on-one time with Biden.
Pandas have been a sort of barometer of China’s feelings toward other countries since the 1940s, giving us the fun term “panda diplomacy.” The National Zoo received its first gift of bears back in 1972 following U.S. President Richard Nixon’s historic trip to China. (In return, Nixon gifted China two musk oxen, which, no offense to musk oxen, is way less cool.) In recent years, China has continued to deliver bears to several countries, including last year to Qatar, the first Middle Eastern country to receive the honor.
So it’s notable that it’s been two decades since China last loaned new pandas to the U.S. And as their leases have run out—yes, there are panda leases—pandas in the U.S. have been slowly disappearing: San Diego’s bears left in 2019, and Memphis’ bear went back earlier this year. Now there are only four left in the country, all at the Atlanta Zoo, and their lease is set to expire next year.
At this week’s conference, Xi explicitly recognized the gesture of a panda offering, calling them “envoys of friendship between the Chinese and American peoples.” He went on to say to American business leaders during a speech that he “learned that the San Diego Zoo and the Californians very much look forward to welcoming pandas back.” He also seemed to be moved by the news of sad families in D.C., saying, “I was told that many American people, especially children, were really reluctant to say goodbye to the pandas, and went to the zoo to see them off.” Xi made no mention of bringing bears back to the National Zoo and instead seemed to suggest that California would be the next state to receive any future panda gifts, which is a bummer for East Coasters.
There were no other specific details about when or where we might expect pandas in the future, but at least there’s a reason to hope. One thing to note: If more pandas do come our way, they won’t be the same pandas. This whole diplomacy act is a bit like someone lending you a house cat (for $500,000 a year), waiting until you fall in love, taking the cat back, and then giving your friend a new one. So, that’s bittersweet. But we can take solace knowing that the beloved bears that lived in D.C. have been returned to a flock—er, embarrassment (?)—of pandas in a nice nature preserve in the mountains.