A Special Chinese Diplomat: The Giant Panda

By Zhongyi Christina Su

Bao Bao, the giant panda born in the Smithsonian’s National Zoo, will depart for China in the beginning of 2017. Mei Lun and Mei Huan, the twin giant pandas born three years ago at Atlanta’s zoo, arrived at Chengdu, China, on Nov. 3, 2016.

According to the Smithsonian National Zoo, all cubs born at the zoo move to China by the time they turn 4 years old as part of the zoo’s cooperative breeding agreement with the China Wildlife Conservation Association (CWCA). Bao Bao will turn 4 on Aug. 23, 2017.

“Bao Bao is very special to us at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo,” said Brandie Smith, associate director of animal care sciences, in a statement issued by the National Zoo. “She was the first surviving cub born at the zoo since 2005. She’s captured the hearts of people all over the world who watched her grow up on the panda cams, and she has been an ambassador for conservation. We are sad to see her go, but excited for the contributions she is going to continue to make to the global giant panda population.”

Bao Bao was born at 5:32 p.m. Aug. 23, 2013, at the zoo’s David M. Rubenstein Family Giant Panda Habitat. Peng Liyuan and Michelle Obama, the first ladies of China and the United States, posted videos welcoming Bao Bao and praising panda diplomacy.

A giant panda at the Smithsonian's National Zoo.

A giant panda at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo

Chinese First Lady Peng Liyuan noted that the pandas “symbolize the loving care of the Chinese and American people and the friendship between them. May the friendship between the Chinese and American people grow even stronger.”

“After decades of close collaboration with our Chinese partners, these remarkable animals stand as a symbol of the growing connections between our two countries,” First Lady Michelle Obama told the Wall Street Journal.

Cui Tiankai, China’s Ambassador to the United States, wrote in an article published in the Washington Post, that: “Many people don’t realize it, but there are actually two Chinese ambassadors in Washington: me and the panda cub at the National Zoo.”

Four zoos across the United States are homes for giant pandas today. The arrival of these diplomats successfully conquered the hearts of many Americans. In the United States, a zoo with a panda will have a strong popularity. Over the years, pandas not only brought happiness to countless Americans, but the big bears also provided a bridge for Sino-U.S. cooperation in a complex and changing environment.

Known as “panda diplomacy,” China has been sending its pandas as gifts to other countries as a sign of friendship. Chinese media outlets state that there are 42 pandas living abroad, including in the United States, Canada, Britain, France, Austria, and Belgium. Before the 1980s, the giant pandas were mainly regarded as gifts. Now, they also shoulder the task of cooperation between countries doing scientific research. According to CCTV News, China established long-term research cooperation with 17 zoos in 12 countries.

According to the U.S.- China Policy Foundation, pandas are part of Chinese diplomatic efforts to improve soft power and ties with key countries. The pandas are a part of efforts to advance bilateral relations.

“I think Bei Bei told us one thing: Family is very important,” said Dennis Kelly, director of the National Zoo, in The Washington Post. Bei Bei, who is now 1-year-old, is another panda living in the National Zoo. “Americans, Chinese realize family is important and friendships are important, and it’s our friendship that will cause us to be successful for future generations.”

The pandas have become China’s best diplomats. No matter where the pandas go to live, they carry the world’s imagination with them about China, and they help to transcend national boundaries.

Photograph by Zhongyi Christina Su

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