Wed. Dec 6th, 2023

After the successive repatriations of pandas loaned by China to the San Diego and Memphis zoos, only those in Atlanta now remain.

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Diplomatic chill: an American farewell to Chinese pandas

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The departure of the pandas from the Washington Zoo comes at a time when American relations with China are not in good shape.

  • Frédéric Arnould (View profile)Frédéric Arnould

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This week, Washington's most popular Chinese nationals, Tian Tian, ​​Mei Xiang and Xiao Qi Ji, left the US capital. For years, these pandas have attracted crowds at the Washington Zoo. Their departure coincides with a cooling in relations between the United States and China.

It was impossible, on Wednesday, to miss this departure of the pandas announced with fanfare for several days. The start of the journey of these Chinese mammals, true stars who made the Smithsonian Zoo famous, was followed live by all the local American channels. In a speech, zoo director Brandie Smith said it was a tough morning for her.

This is certainly not the first time that pandas have left the capital, but it is the first time in 23 years that the zoo's panda enclosure has been empty. After the successive repatriations of pandas loaned by China to the San Diego and Memphis zoos, only those in Atlanta now remain. However, starting next year, they will also return to their country of origin.

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The trucks that transport the Giant pandas from the Smithsonian Zoo in Washington arrive at Dulles International Airport in Virginia.

At a time when relations between the United States and China are at their lowest, all these “masked animals” are being repatriated without any agreement having been reached concluded to replace them.

They are the best emissaries China has had in the United States, says Dennis Wilder, professor of Asian studies at Georgetown University and former White House official on China. Pandas have been a tremendous element of soft power for the Chinese.

Pandas have arrived for the first time at the Washington Zoo in 1972, in the middle of the Cold War. A few months after President Richard Nixon's visit to communist China, we witnessed, at the time, a historic thaw between these two enemy nations.

It was during a dinner in Beijing that the first lady of the United States, Patricia Nixon, showed the Chinese prime minister her affection for pandas. To curry favor with the United States, Beijing decided to offer two pandas to the United States. This is how Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing arrived at the Washington Zoo on April 16, 1972.

Over the course of 20 years at the Smithsonian Zoo, this pair of pandas gave birth to five cubs, but unfortunately none of them survived more than a few days.

After the death of this famous couple, it took a few years before a new Chinese loan to the United States, in the form of Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, ​​in 2000. The “lease” provided that the two pandas would live at the zoo for 10 years in exchange for 10 million US dollars.

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Panda diplomacy is a way for China to signal a certain normalization of commercial and political relations with the countries to which it lends these animals.

Thus, In 2005, Mei Xiang gave birth to the zoo's first surviving panda, Tai Shan. Fifteen years later, in 2020, the world was captivated by the arrival of Mei Xang's fourth surviving panda, Xiao Qi Ji. The world fell in love with this charming offspring thanks to the panda cam, which allowed the entire planet to observe his every move live.

During their stay, images of them appeared on buses, subway cards, sneakers, shirts, pajamas, mugs and everything other derivative product imaginable.

Is the departure of pandas from the Washington Zoo a symbol of a relationship that has cooled considerably?

Professor Dennis Wilder fears it. I have never seen the trust deficit between Washington and Beijing as deep as today, he notes. When we say that we do not want the Chinese economy to collapse, that we want it to prosper, the Chinese no longer believe us. They no longer believe us because of the sanctions we impose on them, [notably] problems related to semiconductors [or even] the redirection of American foreign direct investments towards countries other than China.

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During the APEC summit which will take place from November 11 in San Francisco, Joe Biden and Xi Jiping will perhaps have the opportunity to talk about a return of pandas.

Mr. Wilder also believes that Xi Jinping made a bold lie by declaring, in 2015, when the Chinese were modernizing their presence on the islands in the South China Sea by installing weapons there, that he would not did not militarize them. Yet you see what they are doing in the South China Sea and their aggressive attitude towards the Philippines and other claimants in that region as well as around Taiwan, with these constant overflights of ;military planes, adds the Georgetown professor.

According to him, the Chinese would also have been irritated by Nancy Pelosi's visit to Taiwan, ;last year. The situation deteriorated further after the United States shot down a suspected Chinese spy balloon earlier this year.

Is the end of the panda loan a step representative of the negative atmosphere which reigns in diplomatic relations between the two countries? It's not nice to see pandas dying abroad, says Elena Songster, professor of history at St. Mary's College of California and author of Panda Nation. It is therefore rather logical, according to her, that these elderly pandas return to China.

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Washington Zoo panda merchandise was very popular.

However, the fact that they are not being exchanged for younger pandas and that every loan deal in the US is coming to an end seems significant to me. But I don't think repatriating pandas is an obvious way to punish a country, says Ms. Songster.

Should we then establish a link between the evolution of China's diplomatic relations and the loan of pandas to other countries? China recently sent a pair of pandas to Qatar and there are also pandas in other countries around the world, reports Elena Songster. So this is certainly not the end of panda diplomacy, but it could be a change in diplomacy. Since these agreements are decades old, it is possible that China will somehow re-evaluate where its pandas are and their importance, based on evolving agreements.

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With the departure of the pandas from Washington, the question of the evolution of diplomatic relations with China arises.

Meanwhile, Washington Zoo officials say they have not yet started negotiations to get more pandas from China, but they are optimistic. In fact, the zoo plans to spend US$2.5 million to renovate the panda enclosure in the hope that it will once again be filled with these adorable bamboo-eating “teddies.”

< p class="StyledBodyHtmlParagraph-sc-48221190-4 hnvfyV">When the exceptional convoy of three pandas was heading to Dulles Airport, Virginia, for its long journey to China, Xu Xueyuan, a Chinese diplomat based in Washington, sent a message of encouragement. farewell to Mei Xiang, Tian Tian and Xiao Qi Ji.

As a diplomat in Washington, I bid you farewell and have a good trip. As a representative of the Chinese government, I welcome you, she declared, to the great sadness of visitors to the zoo, who have just lost great ambassadors.


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