Last week, the three giant pandas at the National Zoo, in Washington, D.C., left their habitat, for the long journey to China. Tian Tian, the laid-back papa bear often lounging with bamboo crumbs on his belly, Mei Xiang, the attentive matriarch famed for puzzle-solving, and Xiao Qi Ji, the tree-climbing cub whose name means “little miracle” in Mandarin, each entered a large white crate. They were ferried by a front loader to FedEx trucks adorned with giant-panda decals. Six zookeepers walked alongside each crate in slow processions to whisper reassuring words and calm their wards. Each crate had a tiny window, and Nicole MacCorkle, who had long been Mei Xiang’s lead keeper, touched the glass as a signal that she was still nearby. After she said her final goodbye to the pandas, MacCorkle wept.
I was among a small group of journalists invited to the departure. It was like a funeral cortège with the keepers as panda-bearers. I’ve covered pandas since my first trip to the Beijing Zoo, in 1978. I wrote about the National Zoo’s first pair—Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing—whose offspring all died soon after birth. In old age, Hsing-Hsing took his medication wrapped inside blueberry muffins donated by Starbucks. In 2000, I spent New Year’s Eve—dressed in protective surgical gear—on the other side of the glass in the Panda House when Tian and Mei were still in quarantine. All four of their cubs were born on my birthday or the day before, so each year I celebrated with them.
Resentment against China for recalling the bears now runs deep in Washington. “It’s like they hijacked the cherry blossoms or kidnapped the Washington Monument,” Kitty Eisele, an NPR veteran, wrote me on Facebook. For more than half a century, pandas have been beloved as the unofficial mascots and a rare source of unity in the polarized capital. A hundred and fifty giant-panda sculptures, each painted and accessorized by local artists, were placed across the city by the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities. A local fire department donated old hoses for the zoo to craft into outdoor hammocks and inside beds for the bears. In 2001, I arranged for Neil Armstrong to feed the pandas from the keepers’ area. He was so riveted that you’d have thought he had never done anything interesting in his life. But, this year, China informed the National Zoo, without giving a reason, that it would not renew its lucrative panda lease. It is now happening worldwide. The pandas in Memphis and San Diego have already gone back. The last group in Atlanta are due to return next year. The bears in Edinburgh are scheduled to go back next month, and the Adelaide Zoo, in Australia, is struggling to renew a panda lease that runs out next year.
Panda diplomacy—the icebreaker that symbolically and emotionally melted frigid relations between the United States and China in 1972—is, at least for now, over. The United States will have no pandas for the first time since First Lady Pat Nixon, accompanying her husband on his groundbreaking trip to Beijing in 1972, admired the panda logo atop a tin of cigarettes on a table at the welcoming banquet. “Aren’t they cute?” she reportedly said. “I love them.” Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai, the host, replied that he’d give her some. “Cigarettes?” she asked. “No,” Zhou said. “Pandas.” Two months later, the National Zoo had its first pair. Back then, it was that easy.
Since then, the People’s Republic evolved from an isolated revolutionary state into a developing country seeking reëntry into the world, and grew into a global military and economic power. The panda recall “underscores that China in 2023 is, once again, a closed society,” Robert Daly, the director of the Wilson Center’s Kissinger Institute, told me. “It is giving up on public diplomacy.”
Beijing’s power play with pandas coincides with talks between President Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping, scheduled for Wednesday, in the San Francisco Bay Area. The two will meet on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit of twenty-one countries bordering the Pacific Ocean, which represent some forty per cent of the world population and almost half of all global trade. The main focus will be on what happens between the two countries that are “destined to be the fiercest rivals in history,” Graham Allison, the founding dean of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and a former Pentagon official, told me. “Today, relations have deteriorated to their worst state since Nixon signed the Shanghai Communiqué, in 1972,” when the U.S. signed onto a new One China policy and a goal of eventually reëstablishing diplomatic and economic ties severed after the 1949 revolution.
The mini-summit caps a year of tensions over spy-balloon espionage and Beijing’s mushrooming nuclear arsenal; Taiwan, trade disputes, and theft of intellectual property; and intensifying influence-peddling across the Indo-Pacific and beyond. Diplomacy was suspended, in February, when a Chinese spy balloon, the size of three school buses, drifted across Alaska and Canada, into Idaho and Montana, cut across the Midwest above Kansas, then headed east to the Carolinas—peeking along the way into U.S. military sites, including bases where nuclear warheads are stored. Beijing claimed that the balloon was an airship with meteorological gear that blew off course. Washington didn’t buy it. Secretary of State Antony Blinken cancelled his trip to Beijing just hours before departure. He called the balloon “a clear violation of our sovereignty, a clear violation of international law, and clearly unacceptable.” After the white orb drifted beyond Myrtle Beach, an F-22 fighter blasted a two-hundred-pound Sidewinder missile into the balloon. China angrily threatened to respond in kind. Relations soured further after Biden, in June, called Xi a dictator. In Washington, China-bashing is popular among both Democrats and Republicans, the latter jostling over which candidate would take a tougher stand in the recent primary debates.