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

Carrying a “I Love Pandas” t-shirt and clutching a panda-covered diary, Kelsey Lambert bubbled with pleasure as she glimpsed the true factor. She and her mom, Alison, had made a particular journey from San Antonio, Texas, simply to look at the Nationwide Zoo’s furry rock stars casually munching bamboo and rolling round on the grass.

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

Mei Xiang, Tian Tian, and their teen Xiao Qi Ji, three big pandas from the Nationwide Zoo, are scheduled to depart for China in early December, however there have been no obvious indications that the 50-year change deal cast by former President Richard Nixon could be maintained.

Despite quite a few requests for data on the standing of the negotiations, Nationwide Zoo authorities have stayed mum concerning the probability of renewing or extending the association. The zoo, alternatively, has taken a extremely detrimental public tone, presenting the remaining months as the tip of an period. Panda Palooza: A Large Farewell, a week-long celebration, simply ended on the zoo.

The potential finish of the Nationwide Zoo’s panda period comes amid what veteran China-watchers say is a bigger development. With diplomatic tensions working excessive between Beijing and quite a lot of Western governments, China seems to be steadily pulling again its pandas from a number of Western zoos as their agreements expire.

Dennis Wilder, a senior fellow at Georgetown College’s Initiative for US-China Dialogue on International Points, referred to as the development “punitive panda diplomacy,” noting that two different American zoos have misplaced their pandas lately, whereas zoos in Scotland and Australia are going through comparable departures with no indicators of their mortgage agreements being renewed.

Beijing presently lends out 65 pandas to 19 nations via “cooperative research programs” with a acknowledged mission to higher defend the susceptible species. The pandas return to China once they attain previous age and any cubs born are despatched to China round age 3 or 4.

The San Diego zoo returned its pandas in 2019 and the final bear on the Memphis, Tennessee zoo went house earlier this yr. The departure of the Nationwide Zoo’s bears would imply that the one big pandas left in America are on the Atlanta Zoo — and that mortgage settlement expires late subsequent yr.

Wilder mentioned the Chinese language presumably could possibly be “trying to send a signal.”

He cited a litany of Chinese language-American flashpoints: sanctions imposed by the US authorities on outstanding Chinese language residents and officers; restrictions on the import of Chinese language semiconductors; accusations that Chinese language-made fentanyl is flooding American cities; suspicion over Chinese language possession of the social media platform TikTok; and the uproar early this yr over the Chinese language balloons floating over America.

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

The panda-related pressure has even spilled into the hallways of the US Senate. Final week, Pennsylvania Democrat John Fetterman complained about China shopping for 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 not less than partially shared by the general public in China, the place anti-American sentiments are on the rise. These sentiments developed into an ideal panda storm earlier this yr when Le Le, a male panda on mortgage to the zoo in Memphis, died instantly in February on the age of 24. Pandas usually reside 15 to twenty years within the wild, whereas these in human care typically reside to be round 30.

Le Le’s sudden demise prompted an explosion on Chinese language social media platforms like Weibo, with widespread allegations that the Memphis zoo had mistreated the bear and its feminine companion, Ya Ya. The marketing campaign gained depth when pictures circulated on the Web of Ya Ya wanting soiled and gaunt (by panda requirements) with patchy fur.

A web based petition on Change.org demanded Ya Ya be returned instantly, alleging malnourishment and deprivation of correct medical care. Slogans comparable to “the panda’s life matters” surfaced in China’s social media together with emotional memes pleading with authorities to rescue the bear. One specific meme depicts a miserable-looking Ya Ya gazing at a airplane 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 warmth grew so intense that the Memphis Zoo launched a press release responding to what it referred to as “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 pure causes.

Even an official Chinese language scientific delegation that visited Memphis and introduced that Le Le was not mistreated and died of a coronary heart situation did not quell the outrage. Ya Ya was returned to China on schedule in April when the mortgage settlement expired and acquired a star’s welcome at Shanghai’s airport.

The Chinese language authorities, which gifted the primary pair of pandas — Hsing Hsing and Ling Ling — to the US, now leases the pandas out for a typical 10-year renewable time period. The annual payment ranges from $1 million to $2 million per pair, plus necessary prices to construct and preserve services to deal with the animals. Any cub born to the pandas belongs to the Chinese language authorities, however could be leased for a further payment till it reaches mating age.

Over the 50 years of American panda mortgage agreements, the association has hit a couple of tough patch. In 2010, Daniel Ashe, then head of the federal Fish and Wildlife Service, traveled to China to assist resolve a technical bureaucratic problem that was threatening the renewal of the Nationwide Zoo’s settlement. The issue was rapidly resolved and the settlement prolonged.

“But the situation now is completely different,” mentioned Ashe, now CEO of the Affiliation 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 precisely this kind of Eleventh-hour high-level intervention will come via. Wilder pointed to the upcoming Asia-Pacific Financial Cooperation summit in San Francisco in November as a possible discussion board for President Joe Biden and Chinese language President Xi Jinping to make headlines by breaking the impasse. And Chinese language Ambassador to the US 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 mentioned through the Aspen Safety Discussion board in July in Aspen, Colorado.

However for now, panda-philes of all ages are making pilgrimages to Washington for a final glimpse on the bears. On the zoo final Friday, amid the chatter of youngsters, was an grownup couple with a child on the way in which — every carrying matching panda-ears headbands. Colleen Blue and John Nungesser got here from outdoors 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 mentioned.

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

Blue mentioned she broke into tears and “had a temper tantrum” when she came upon that Washington’s pandas could be leaving. The couple is already planning, after their child is born, to take the toddler to see the pandas in Atlanta subsequent summer time earlier than they depart.

And Alison Lambert, Kelsey’s mother, mentioned she stays optimistic that either side will work out an settlement just because it’s mutually useful. And in the event that they don’t, Kelsey is already creating Plan B.

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

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