Washington, D.C.’s famous giant pandas left the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute for Chengdu, China on Nov. 8.
The National Zoo has been home to pandas since 1972; the departing pandas, 25-year-old female Mei Xiang and 26-year-old male Tian Tian arrived in D.C. in 2000, while their three-year-old cub Xiao Qi Ji was born in the zoo. Following their departure, only four giant pandas remain in the United States, all in Zoo Atlanta, and the zoo expects them to depart in 2024.
The three pandas boarded a FedEx Panda Express Boeing 777F aircraft for the 9000-mile journey across the Pacific. The flight included a brief refueling stop at Anchorage, Ala. After a 19-hour flight, the pandas safely landed in Chengdu.
Lionel Zhang (MSB ’27), who recently visited the zoo, said he was glad that the pandas returned home.
“In China, giant pandas are considered a national treasure. That’s why I am very happy to see that the three pandas are finally coming home,” Zhang wrote to The Hoya. “I am also delighted to see how China and the U.S. are cooperating effectively to make sure that Tian Tian, Mei Xiang and Xiao Qi Ji will be safely transported.”
China owns and leases all giant pandas in U.S. zoos, and the National Zoo’s current lease — extended twice since the two pandas originally arrived — expires Dec. 7, prompting the pandas’ departure. The three pandas are at the age when they should go back to China — zoos that host pandas outside of China usually return cubs before they turn four and return adults when they are elderly.
Dennis Wilder, a senior fellow for the Initiative for U.S.-China Dialogue on Global Issues at Georgetown University, said China’s decision not to renew leases with the United States reflects the tension between the two countries.
“Because this has been a particularly acrimonious year to U.S.-China relations, the Chinese are demonstrating their dissatisfaction with US policies on such issues as Taiwan, export restrictions on semiconductors, and de-risking by engaging in what I term punitive panda diplomacy,” Wilder wrote to The Hoya.
Barbara K. Bodine, a distinguished professor in the practice of diplomacy, the director of Georgetown’s Institute for the Study of Diplomacy and a former ambassador, said panda diplomacy has been effective for China because it helps construct a friendly public image.
“Pandas arguably benefit China as a tool of public diplomacy,” Bodine wrote to The Hoya. “It is quite difficult for a government to speak directly to the public of another country, especially if it wants to impact public perceptions of itself. Pandas are a fairly effective tool to accomplish this given how much they appeal to animal lovers.”
Bodine also said the pandas’ role as symbols of diplomacy does not necessarily mean governments can use them as effective bargaining chips.
“No government — at least no sane government — would trade foreign policy interests for pandas. But they are an inducement tool to encourage negotiations in whatever issue area concerns China at the time,” Bodine wrote.
Wilder said the United States is hopeful that China will sign new leases with both the National Zoo and other zoos across the United States like the Memphis Zoo, which once hosted pandas.
“The question was not these pandas but rather why have the Chinese refused to sign new leases with the National Zoo and the Memphis Zoo this year? Neither zoo will discuss this topic in public because I believe they both hope that, if U.S.-China relations stabilize, Beijing will decide to sign new leases,” Wilder wrote.
The National Zoo spent $1.7 million to refurbish the panda exhibit area in the hope of signing a new lease agreement in the future.
Wilder said the meeting between American President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping on Nov. 15 may prove to be a turning point for panda diplomacy.
“The decision not to renew the lease is a shot by Beijing on its own goal. I think if the Biden-Xi meeting goes well this Wednesday, there is a good chance that there will be new negotiations begun for pandas to the National Zoo,” Wilder wrote.
During the meeting, Xi signaled his openness to signing new deals with American zoos to bring pandas back to the U.S.
“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,” Xi said at a business dinner.