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China’s ‘Panda Diplomacy’ in Retreat, Signaling Further Deterioration in Sino-US Relations

Published: August 30, 2023
Three giant pandas, on loan to a Washington zoo by China, are set to return to China this December, after over 50 years at the zoo, signalling a further decline in SINO-US relations. (Image: Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0)

As relations between the U.S. and China worsen, giant pandas on loan from China to the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington are set to return to the People’s Republic this December, leaving the popular zoo without pandas for the first time in more than 50 years. 

Beijing began gifting the popular animals to countries in 1941 in a bid to improve international relations. This practice continued up until 1984, when China switched from gifting the animals to leasing them at a cost of roughly $500,000 to $1,000,000 a year per animal. 

Two giant pandas, a female named Mei Xiang and a male named Tian Tian, have lived at the National Zoo since 2000 and produced a son there, Xiao Qi Ji, just three years ago. All three pandas will be returned to China on Dec. 7, since pandas born in captivity outside of China are still considered property of China.   

The zoo announced the development in August in a press release celebrating Xiao Qi Ji’s third birthday, Aug. 21 as well as its father’s birthday, Aug. 26.

In a press release zoo authorities wrote, “This will be Tian Tian’s last birthday in Washington D.C.. He and the Zoo’s female giant panda, 25-year-old Mei Xiang, and their three-year-old son, Xiao Qi Ji, will leave the Zoo by December.”

The zoo says they are planning an extravagant send off for the trio dubbed “Panda Palooza,” a celebration that will mark an end to more than 51 years of the zoo hosting pandas. 

The agreement between China and the U.S. to loan the pandas to the Smithsonian’s National Zoo has been extended several times, most recently in December 2020.

At the time, Steve Monfort, director of the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute said, “Along with millions of Americans, I look forward to the next three years, watching Xiao Qi Ji grow and making further strides in conservation and in our understanding of giant pandas.”  

While no official reason has been communicated as to why the panda’s loan agreement was not extended again, some are pointing to the end of a conservation and breeding agreement that landed the pandas in Washington to begin with. The original agreement, struck in 2000, was for 10 years.

Mei Xiang and Tian Tian were the subjects of controversy during the height of the pandemic, when Chinese users of Weibo, a similar social media platform to X, formerly known as Twitter, accused zoo officials of “abusing” Mei Xiang and urged authorities to repatriate the animal. Zoo officials dismissed the allegations, saying that Mei Xiang was eating plenty and was well cared for. 


Malaysia bids farewell to panda cubs

Two panda cubs, named Yi Yi and Shen Yi, both born in Malaysia, were returned to China on Aug. 29.

The pair are the offspring of Fu Wa and Feng Yi, pandas that were loaned to Malaysia in 2014 as part of an International Cooperative Agreement on Giant Panda Conservation, otherwise known as “panda diplomacy.” 

Both Fu Wa and Feng Yi, who gave birth to a total of three cubs, will remain in Malaysia. 

The conservation agreement stipulates that once the panda cubs turn two years old, they are to be sent to China.

According to Malay Mail, Datuk Seri Huang Tiong Sii, Malaysia’s deputy minister of Natural Resources, Environment and Climate Change said “Yi Yi, who is now five years old, was initially scheduled to be sent back home in 2020, but the repatriation had to be postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

“Considering that Sheng Yi also reached 24 months of age last May, the China Wildlife Conservation Association (CWCA) has agreed to Malaysia’s proposal to send the third giant panda cub back together with Yi Yi,” Sii added.

Much like the Washington zoo, a farewell ceremony will be held to see the panda cubs off. It will be attended by China’s ambassador to Malaysia and Kuala Lumpur’s deputy environment minister.

In a statement, Deputy Minister Huang Tiong Sii said, “I hope that these Giant Pandas… can further promote understanding and close cooperation between the two countries.”