Panda Diplomacy: The departure of DC’s beloved pandas may signal a wider Chinese pullback

WASHINGTON – Wearing a “I Love Pandas” t-shirt and clutching a panda-covered diary, Kelsey Lambert bubbled with excitement as she glimpsed the real thing. She and her mother, Alison, had made a special trip from San Antonio, Texas, just to watch the National Zoo’s furry rock stars casually munching bamboo and rolling around on the grass.

“It felt completely amazing,” Kelsey, age 10, said Friday. “My mom has always promised she would take me one day. So we had to do it now that they’re going away.”

The National Zoo’s three giant pandas — Mei Xiang, Tian Tian and their cub Xiao Qi Ji — are set to return to China in early December with no public signs that the 50-year old exchange agreement struck by former President Richard Nixon will continue.

National Zoo officials have remained tight-lipped about the prospects of renewing or extending the agreement, and repeated attempts to gain comment on the state of the negotiations did not receive a response. However, the public stance of the zoo has been decidedly pessimistic — treating these remaining months as the end of an era. The zoo just finished a weeklong celebration called Panda Palooza: A Giant Farewell.

The potential end of the National Zoo’s panda era comes amid what veteran China-watchers say is a larger trend. With diplomatic tensions running high between Beijing and a number of Western governments, China appears to be gradually pulling back its pandas from multiple Western zoos as their agreements expire.

Dennis Wilder, a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Initiative for U.S.-China Dialogue on Global Issues, called the trend “punitive panda diplomacy,” noting that two other American zoos have lost their pandas in recent years, while zoos in Scotland and Australia are facing similar departures with no signs of their loan agreements being renewed.

Beijing currently lends out 65 pandas to 19 countries through “cooperative research programs” with a stated mission to better protect the vulnerable species. The pandas return to China when they reach old age and any cubs born are sent to China around age 3 or 4.

The San Diego zoo returned its pandas in 2019 and the last bear at the Memphis, Tennessee zoo went home earlier this year. The departure of the National Zoo’s bears would mean that the only giant pandas left in America are at the Atlanta Zoo — and that loan agreement expires late next year.

Wilder said the Chinese possibly could be “trying to send a signal.”

He cited a litany of Chinese-American flashpoints: sanctions imposed by the U.S. government on prominent Chinese citizens and officials; restrictions on the import of Chinese semiconductors; accusations that Chinese-made fentanyl is flooding American cities; suspicion over Chinese ownership of the social media platform TikTok; and the uproar early this year over the Chinese balloons floating over America.

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Beijing, Wilder said, is convinced that “NATO and the United States are lining up against China.”

The panda-related tension has even spilled into the hallways of the U.S. Senate. Last week, Pennsylvania Democrat John Fetterman complained about China buying up American farmland and added, “I mean, they’re taking back our pandas. You know, we should take back all their farmland.”

That animosity has been at least partially shared by the public in China, where anti-American sentiments are on the rise. Those sentiments developed into a perfect panda storm earlier this year when Le Le, a male panda on loan to the zoo in Memphis, died suddenly in February at the age of 24. Pandas generally live 15 to 20 years in the wild, while those in human care often live to be around 30.

Le Le’s unexpected death prompted an explosion on Chinese social media platforms like Weibo, with widespread allegations that the Memphis zoo had mistreated the bear and its female companion, Ya Ya. The campaign gained intensity when photos circulated on the Internet of Ya Ya looking dirty and gaunt (by panda standards) with patchy fur.

An online petition on Change.org demanded Ya Ya be returned immediately, alleging malnourishment and deprivation of proper medical care. Slogans such as “the panda’s life matters” surfaced in China’s social media along with emotional memes pleading with authorities to rescue the bear. One particular meme depicts a miserable-looking Ya Ya gazing at a plane flying overhead with the caption: “Mama, I have worked away from home for 20 years. Have I earned enough for a plane ticket to return home?”

The heat grew so intense that the Memphis Zoo released a statement responding to what it called “misinformation” about its pandas and stating that Ya Ya has “a chronic skin and fur condition” that “makes her hair look thin and patchy,” and Le Le died of natural causes.

Even an official Chinese scientific delegation that visited Memphis and announced that Le Le was not mistreated and died of a heart condition failed to quell the outrage. Ya Ya was returned to China on schedule in April when the loan agreement expired and received a celebrity’s welcome at Shanghai’s airport.

The Chinese government, which gifted the first pair of pandas — Hsing Hsing and Ling Ling — to the U.S., now leases the pandas out for a typical 10-year renewable term. The annual fee ranges from $1 million to $2 million per pair, plus mandatory costs to build and maintain facilities to house the animals. Any cub born to the pandas belongs to the Chinese government, but can be leased for an additional fee until it reaches mating age.

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Over the 50 years of American panda loan agreements, the arrangement has hit more than one rough patch. In 2010, Daniel Ashe, then head of the federal Fish and Wildlife Service, traveled to China to help resolve a technical bureaucratic issue that was threatening the renewal of the National Zoo’s agreement. The problem was quickly resolved and the agreement extended.

“But the situation now is completely different,” said Ashe, now CEO of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. “What we’re seeing now is tensions between our governments at a much higher level, and they need to be addressed and resolved at that level.”

Observers are holding out hope that exactly this sort of 11th-hour high-level intervention will come through. Wilder pointed to the upcoming Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in San Francisco in November as a potential forum for President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping to make headlines by breaking the deadlock. And Chinese Ambassador to the U.S. Xie Feng has sounded semi-optimistic in his public statements.

“I will do my utmost to do that, and here, in Aspen, there also will be (pandas),” Xie said during the Aspen Security Forum in July in Aspen, Colorado.

But for now, panda-philes of all ages are making pilgrimages to Washington for a last glimpse at the bears. At the zoo last Friday, amid the chatter of children, was an adult couple with a baby on the way — each wearing matching panda-ears headbands. Colleen Blue and John Nungesser came from outside Philadelphia to see the pandas; this was Blue’s third time.

“I’ve been obsessed with them since I was little. I used to just bury people in panda facts,” she said.

Nungesser nodded, adding, “On our first date, she went on and on about pandas.”

Blue said she broke into tears and “had a temper tantrum” when she found out that Washington’s pandas would be leaving. The couple is already making plans, after their baby is born, to take the infant to see the pandas in Atlanta next summer before they leave.

And Alison Lambert, Kelsey’s mom, said she remains optimistic that both sides will work out an agreement simply because it’s mutually beneficial. And if they don’t, Kelsey is already developing Plan B.

“We could always fly to China,” she said. “That works, too.”

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Associated Press writers Seth Borenstein and Rebecca Santana contributed to this report.