Image Courtesy of The China Project

By John Maggio

The pandas at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington, DC left the US today, as nearly all the world’s pandas, even those born abroad, are state property of the Chinese government. With recent geopolitical tensions between the US and China, the panda’s lease has not been renewed by China, meaning the US had to return the pandas to China before November 15. This loaning of pandas by the Chinese government is known as “panda diplomacy”.

The three pandas are named Mei Xiang, Tian Tian, and Xiao Qi Ji. Their names mean “Beautiful Fragrance”, “Knee Socks”, and “Little Miracle” respectively. The zoo received Mei Xiang and Tian Tian on December 6, 2000, according to the Smithsonian. Their male cub Xiao Qi Ji was born on August 21, 2020.

Panda diplomacy is an example of a nation’s soft power diplomacy, where a nation imposes influence or popularity onto another nation or its population in non-coercive ways such as with its food or gifts. This is opposed to hard power, which uses a direct force such as a country’s military. This can be directly between governments, such as China loaning their pandas to other nations, but it can be more so at the public level as well. The government of Thailand promoted the nation by expanding the number of Thai places in other countries. South Korea’s Korean Wave (known as Hallyu in Korean) is the global influence of the nation through a combination of its culture since the 1990s, from K-pop music and food to K-dramas and movies.

The US is no stranger to soft diplomacy. From the cultural impact that Hollywood has across the globe to 120 countries having McDonald’s golden arches, the US has had its share of global influence through soft power. One famous example is the popularity of jeans, especially Levi’s, in the Cold War-era USSR. Levi Strauss & Co., which owns Levi’s jeans, states that “jeans were considered a token of capitalism” behind the Iron Curtain.

China has done its panda diplomacy with other countries. Over a dozen countries have pandas, including Germany, Russia, the UK, Australia, Singapore, and the Netherlands.

Mei Xiang and Tian Tian are not the first ones that were given to the US by China. The first ones were the beloved Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing (pronounced as shing-shing) Their names meant “Cute Little Girl” and “Bright Star” respectively. During a dinner in Beijing in February 1972, First Lady Pat Nixon expressed her love of the pandas to Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai. The pair of pandas were given to the US on April 20 of the same year as “a gesture of amity and goodwill of President and Mrs. Nixon’s Journey for Peace to China”. President Richard Nixon’s famous 1972 trip to China was to open the most populous nation to the rest of the world. Before this, no US President had set foot in China and ended the 25 years of no diplomatic ties between the two nations.

Ling-Ling gave birth to five cubs during her time in Washington, with none surviving for more than four days. She died on December 30, 1992, at the age of 23 due to heart failure. Hsing-Hsing was euthanized on November 28, 1999, due to kidney failure and other age-related health issues. He was 28.

Once the trio left the Smithsonian’s National Zoo, the only other zoo remaining in the United States with giant pandas will be Zoo Atlanta. The three pandas, Lun Lun and her twins Ya Lun and Xi Lun, are set to leave next year as China is not likely to renew their contract as well. The San Diego Zoo was given Bai Yun and Shi Shi (meaning “White Cloud” and “Rock” respectively) in 1996, having many cubs. Shi Shi returned to China in 2003. Bai Yun and any remaining cubs returned to China in 2019. The Memphis Zoo had two pandas earlier this year, with them being gifted in 2003. Le Le, meaning “Happy Happy”, died in April. Ya Ya, meaning “Cute Girl”, was sent back to China the same month. The zoo faced allegations of mistreatment, which may have led to the death of Le Le.

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