China is collecting its giant pandas on loan to zoos in the United States and other countries in what foreign policy analysts say is a possible change in its approach to “panda diplomacy.”
Three pandas at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., are scheduled to return to China by Dec. 7 as their loan agreement expires, according to The Washington Post. Four pandas at Zoo Atlanta are due to leave next year if a new deal isn’t signed. Britain will lose its last two pandas in December, as will Australia next year if an existing agreement is not extended. Pandas left the Memphis Zoo in April and the San Diego Zoo in 2019.
There are currently no agreements to replace any of them, per the Post. Without an extension, the United States faces the prospect of having no giant pandas for the first time since 1972.
“This is perhaps Beijing’s way of signaling to the West that they may not be very happy with how things are going,” Chee Meng Tan, an associate professor at the University of Nottingham in Malaysia who studies “panda diplomacy,” told the Post.
Beijing has grown increasingly frustrated with how relations between China and the West have deteriorated in recent years, Tan said. “This may be one way of telling people that. ‘You’re not treating us very well, so maybe we’ll pull out our pandas,’” he added.
What is panda diplomacy?
Pandas are one of the most recognizable emblems of China, and a source of “soft power,” according to Diplo, a Swiss-Maltese nongovernmental organization centered on internet governance and digital policy.
Panda diplomacy refers to the practice of the Chinese government gifting or loaning giant pandas to other countries as a symbol of friendship, goodwill or to strengthen diplomatic relations. The black and white bears are sometimes described as the world’s cutest ambassadors.
The practice dates back to the seventh century Tang Dynasty, but became particularly prominent in the 20th and 21st centuries. There are an estimated 1,900 pandas in the wild and about 600 in zoos and breeding centers, according to Diplo.
China has offered pandas as diplomatic gifts to the United States, Japan, the United Kingdom, France and Germany, among others. After a change in policy in 1984, pandas were leased instead of given as a gift, often accompanied by large fees and a set of terms and conditions.
When did giant pandas come to the U.S.?
Pandas have been symbolic in U.S.-China relations since 1972 when President Richard Nixon made his historic visit to communist China. “It was a signal of improving ties between Beijing and the rest of the world,” Tan said.
At a dinner in Beijing in February of that year, first lady Pat Nixon mentioned her fondness for giant pandas to Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai.
As a gesture of goodwill following the visit, the premier gifted two giant pandas to the American people, according to Smithsonian’s National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute.
The Nixons chose the National Zoo as the home for the bears. Ling-Ling (a female) and Hsing-Hsing (a male) arrived in April 1972. Over the next 20 years, the pair produced five cubs, none which survived for more than a few days. Ling-Ling died in 1992; Hsing-Hsing in 1999.
A second pair of giant pandas, Mei Xiang (female) and Tian Tian (male), arrived at the National Zoo on loan in 2000. In 2020, they produced a male cub named Xiao Qi Ji, which means “little miracle” in Mandarin Chinese.
The zoo has renewed its Giant Panda Cooperative Research and Breeding Agreement with the China Wildlife Conservation Association three times since 2000. An extension signed in 2020 expires in December.