Washington’s Pandas Are Pawns in the New U.S.-China Cold War


The terms were fairly standard. Panda diplomacy had stopped being about a revolutionary government gifting the rare cuties to its friends. It was now about an emerging WTO member striking lucrative rental arrangements all over the world — deals that wouldn’t have to be renewed should the situation change. Other American zoos got in on the action, too, meaning the pandas in Washington were no longer quite such a unique attraction. Even cuddly zoo animals, it seemed, reflected a ballooning trade deficit.

The throngs at the zoo, though, didn’t appear too vexed about the geopolitics. Washington still loved its pandas, whatever their legal status. Some 150 panda statues appeared on D.C. streets as part of a public art project. The WNBA’s Washington Mystics basketball squad introduced Pax the Panda as its mascot. David Rubenstein, the billionaire founder of the politically connected Carlyle Group, donated millions to the program and got his name on the panda house in return. The zoo launched a “panda cam” livestream: A video of one of the bears frolicking in a 2016 blizzard racked up 93 million views.

The new couple also managed to conceive several times, with the birth of each cub registering as a news event. During a state visit in Washington, Chinese first lady Peng Liyuan and Michelle Obama jointly announced the naming of one of them, Bei Bei. Under the terms of the rental, Bei Bei was ultimately sent back to China, just like siblings Tai Shan and Bao Bao. The zoo threw farewell celebrations each time. (The youngest of the family, Xiao Qi Ji, the first panda born via artificial insemination outside China, is still here, slated to leave with his parents.)

Even as relations between the governments grew frostier, new versions of the 2000 deal between the zoo and the Chinese wildlife organization were signed in 2010 and again in 2015. The most recent pact was extended at the end of the Covid-ridden 2020, during which the zoo was closed for a chunk of time. But the extension was for only three years.

By that point, negotiations were taking place against the backdrop of an American political scene in which anti-China sentiments were running hot — and a Chinese context where resentment of alleged U.S. lecturing made leaders ever less interested in touchy-feely gestures.

Particularly on the populist right, there’s a tendency to view the last few decades of deal-making with China as a story of naive Americans being snookered by an autocratic regime. Last year, in the House of Representatives, that sentiment finally attached itself to the pandas. The Promoting Animal Naturalization and Democracy Act (PANDA — get it?), introduced by South Carolina Republican Nancy Mace, condemned panda leases, directing the U.S. to establish a rival panda-breeding program with allies. It also said that pandas born in the U.S. should stay here.

“For too long, the Chinese Communist Party has attempted to soften its image with that of the soft cuddly panda by loaning giant pandas to foreign countries at a fee of $500,000 per panda. All countries must agree to return the pandas to China, property of the Communist Chinese government. Let’s get serious with our diplomacy, and hit China where it hurts,” Mace said in a floor speech that mentioned the Wuhan Covid outbreak and the treatment of the Uyghur minority.

In a line that may have flummoxed zookeepers guarding the pandas’ cages in Washington, Mace also implored Congress to “give freedom to the pandas and allow pandas born in the United States to stay in the United States.”

The measure went nowhere, but it was a pretty good example of our era’s background music. Did it blow up chances for a new lease? Unclear. Panda loans to local zoos also ended in Memphis and San Diego. A State Department spokesperson reiterated to me that the deal between the National Zoo and the China Wildlife Conservation Association wasn’t a government-to-government contract. But as a trust created and funded by the federal government, the Smithsonian is led by folks who tend to worry about getting hauled before Congress and accused of appeasing an enemy.

This summer, it became clear that no one on either side was doing any appeasing: The zoo announced that the contract would expire at year’s end. In a neat final bit of symbolism, the much-hyped farewell program, which included warm cultural-exchange activities like Chinese calligraphy lessons for kids and food from the Chinese Embassy, was sponsored by Boeing, an American firm that actually needs to sell things in China.


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