The Associated Press is reporting that Chinese President Xi Jinping gestured, during a dinner speech in San Francisco on Wednesday, that China intends to send new pandas to the U.S., perhaps to San Diego.
Calling pandas “envoys of friendship between the Chinese and American peoples,” Xi said according to the AP:
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 so as to deepen the friendly ties between our two peoples.
After five decades of joyous panda-monium, under a lot of pomp, circumstance, and sadness, three of the last seven giant pandas living in the U.S. were returned last week to their lush nature preserve in the misty mountains of Sichuan Province. They were passengers aboard a FedEx Boeing 777 appropriately called the Panda Express.
The three pandas, residents at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo, in Washington, DC, are a female, Mei Xiang, 25, a male, Tian Tian, 26, and their 3-year-old cub, Xiao Qi Ji.
The other four remaining pandas in the U.S. — parents and twin cubs — reside at Zoo Atlanta and are scheduled to return to China next year.
The three returning pandas were accompanied by a veterinarian, two zookeepers and 220 pounds of bamboo to snack on during the long 19-hour flight, leaving behind many tears and broken hearts along with many questions and lots of conjecture.
• How can China demand the return of Pandas that were originally a gift?
• Why do Pandas born in the U.S. have to be returned?
• Is this the end of “panda diplomacy”?
• Will pandas ever return to the U.S.?
“Panda diplomacy” with Washington began when President Richard M. Nixon and First Lady Patricia Nixon made a historic visit to China in 1972. During a meeting with the Chinese premier Zhou Enlai, Mrs. Nixon mentioned to the premier how much she loved pandas. And voilà (in Chinese), two months later the National Zoo was the proud owner of two pandas, male panda Hsing-Hsing and female panda Ling-Ling.
The two pandas were a gift to the United States, but such gifting was not new.
According to the South China Morning Post, the tradition dates back to the Tang dynasty when, in 685 AD two live “white bears” (determined to be giant pandas) were sent to imperial Japan.
More recently, in 1941, as another gesture of Chinese diplomatic gift-giving, “Soong Mei-ling – wife of the late Kuomintang leader Chiang Kai-shek – presented a ‘chubby pair of comical black and white furry pandas’ to the US…an expression of thanks for the help given by Washington to Chinese refugees during the Sino-Japanese war.”
The giving of pandas became a more prominent gesture of friendship and diplomacy between 1957 and 1983. During that period, twenty-four pandas were gifted to nine nations, including the United States, the Soviet Union and the United Kingdom.
However, in 1984, Chinese generosity stopped and a “leasing program” started which evolved into various complicated terms.
It started with the leasing of two pandas to Los Angeles during the 1984 Olympic Games for $50,000 per panda, per month.
In 1991, the leasing practice was modified in favor of (extendable) ten-year leases running into the millions of dollars.
Furthermore, there are now provisions that all panda cubs born abroad remain property of China and that such offspring must be returned to China before they turn four and that adults be sent back when they are elderly.
In addition, zoos are also required to pay a “baby tax” of at least $200,000 for each new-born cub.
Finally, when a panda dies while on loan, its body remains China’s property and must be returned to China…along with a hefty fine of $500,000.
Thus, no birthright citizenship for panda cubs or green cards for their parents.
In 2022, Congresswoman Nancy Mace (R-S.C.) introduced a bill that would “Give freedom to the pandas and allow pandas born in the United States to stay in the United States.” It did not pass.
As the number of pandas in the United States dwindles, coinciding with deteriorating U.S. China relations, the number of pandas on loan around the world is also slumping.
As of March,2023 there were an estimated 66 pandas across zoos in about 20 countries outside of mainland China. But, more recently, these popular diplomats are being recalled at a fast rate.
Scotland and Australia are losing their pandas within one year.
If no new agreements can be hammered out, by the end of 2024 there will be only one panda left in all of the Americas: 33-year-old Xin who is owned by Mexico.
The panda exit comes at a time when U.S.-China relations are strained over a number of issues including Taiwan, the wars in Ukraine and the Middle East, in addition to disagreements on trade, technology and amid other diplomatic tensions.
However, panda-loving Americans are hopeful that some accommodation will be reached and the “panda diplomacy” will be reinstated soon.
President Biden will meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Wednesday in San Francisco. It is not known if the return of the pandas will be on the agenda, nor is it known if Jill Biden will be present.
However, if she is, it is a golden opportunity for a First Lady of the United States to once again work her charm on a Chinese leader.
The author is a retired U.S. Air Force officer and a writer.